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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sweet Bean Paste

Durian Sukegawa

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To purchase Sweet Bean Paste

Title: Sweet Bean Paste
Author: Durian Sukegawa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013, rev. 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Sweet Bean Paste - US
Sweet Bean Paste - UK
Sweet Bean Paste - Canada
Sweet Bean Paste - India
Les Délices de Tokyo - France
Kirschblüten und rote Bohnen - Deutschland
Le ricette della signora Tokue - Italia
DVD: Sweet Bean - US
Sweet Bean - UK
  • Japanese title: あん
  • Translated by Alison Watts
  • Sweet Bean Paste was made into the film Sweet Bean (2015), directed by Kawase Naomi, and starring Kiki Kirin and Nagase Masatoshi

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Our Assessment:

B : rather saccharine and too obviously well-meaning, but competently done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 27/10/2017 Jane Housham
The Herald A 21/10/2017 Alastair Mabbott
The Japan Times A 14/4/2018 Iain Maloney
Sydney Morning Herald . 23/11/2017 Cameron Woodhead

  From the Reviews:
  • "Depending on your inclinations, you may find this simply delicious or cloyingly sweet" - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "Despite the steely gaze it casts across Japan, it’s a tender-hearted novel tracing an inter-generational friendship that blooms under the cherry blossoms that mark the passage of the seasons. (...) As wise as it is moving, Sukegawa’s novel beguiles and seduces the reader from evocative opening to compassionate close." - Alastair Mabbott, The Herald

  • "(A) subtle, moving exploration of redemption in an unforgiving society. (...) Sukegawa’s writing style, delicately translated by Alison Watts, is well-matched to the subject matter: a slow, muted movement that gently guides the reader, while leaving the unnecessary unsaid. (...) A book with deceptive heft and lingering resonance." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "It's too cloyingly sentimental for my taste and prone to consciousness-raising infodumps." - Cameron Woodhead, Sydney Morning Herald

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sweet Bean Paste finds ex-con Sentaro toiling away in a humble Doraharu shop, making and selling dorayaki -- pancakes with red bean paste filling, a peculiarly Japanese specialty -- to pay off some money he owes. The generous boss who helped him out after he served his two years for a drug offense who used to run the shop is dead, and his widow more or less leaves Sentaro to it; there's just enough business to get by, and while Sentaro doesn't do much more than go through the motions, he does that dutifully seven days a week.
       Sentaro has a help wanted-sign in his window, and he's approached by a seventy-six-year-old woman named Tokue with gnarled fingers about it, but he can't imagine hiring her, no matter for how little she's willing to work. But even after he gives her the brush-off, she comes back -- with a sample of her homemade red bean paste. Sentaro buys his red bean paste readymade, and even mixes in the leftovers with every new batch -- a practice which: "was not exactly standard procedure with most confectioners", but the dorayaki are good enough for his limited clientele (which includes lots of loud schoolgirls). Sentaro doesn't even want to try the old lady's, but eventually he does -- and he has to admit there's a world of difference to the stuff he has been putting in his pancakes. Eventually, of course, he hires Tokue -- with the understanding that she stay out of sight, so the customers aren't put off by the appearance of her hands.
       Tokue shows Sentaro the proper way of making red bean paste. It's much more arduous than what Sentaro was used to, but it's also so much better. His customers notice too, and business improves.
       But someone notices something else, too -- Tokue's tell-tale appearance, pointing to a past that makes many people very uncomfortable. When the owner of the shop gets word, she wants Sentaro to fire the old lady, but Sentaro can't bring himself to do it. It's not like the customers are in any danger, but in their ignorance they are easily scared off, and when word gets out -- as it so easily does -- business falls off.
       Tokue returns to her dreary former life, and Sentaro sinks back into his. But eventually he, and a girl who had been a customer, a troubled little teen named Wakana, nursing an injured bird, seek out Tokue -- learning about her past, and the conditions she grew up and lived in, conditions that basically had her cut off from the rest of society until a change in Japanese law, in 1996. (The history and locale Durian describes are accurate, as the book is meant to shine a light on this small shameful part of Japanese history.)
       Tokue is still encouraging -- suggesting to Sentaro that, for example, he experiment and finds his own way to make a different, special dorayaki. Meanwhile, the shop-owner figures they might as well turn the place into an okonomiyaki joint, and Sentaro can only hold her off so long. And then she brings her nephew into the mix .....
       Sweet Bean Paste is, rather too obviously, a message-novel, meant both to educate and, of course, to display the wonderful human spirit. Durian makes his case for human dignity, and for everyone being allowed to contribute to, and as such be part of, society -- as Tokue has been so eager to do. And he makes it fairly blatantly .....
       Japanese reserve and understatement -- both in the writing and the behavior of the characters -- help keep the narrative from becoming too twee, and Sweet Bean Paste is effectively affecting. Still, Durian can't keep himself from the too-obvious on (many an) occasion: so, for example, the book opens with a: "sweetly scented breeze" blowing along the Cherry Blossom Street the shop is on, the blossoms in full bloom, while when things take a turn for the worse:

Dead leaves gathered on the pavement outside the shop despite Sentaro's efforts at sweeping them up moring and night.
       And there's Wakana's injured bird, struggling to take flight, eager to rejoin the world beyond its cage .....
       Still, it's a polished piece of work, and a decent, touching read -- a bit too much a book-with-a-purpose, but quite well done for that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2018

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Sweet Bean Paste: Reviews: Sweet Bean - the film: Tenshoen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン 助川 (also (2002-2011) 明川 哲也 (Akikawa Tetsuya))) was born in 1962.

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