On my flight home from Australia, I had the luck of stumbling across the 2015 film An while browsing the available movies. An tells the story of a Japanese dorayaki seller and few of the people who impact his life. Dorayaki is a confection pairing little pancakes with an, sweet red bean paste. Obviously it was the setting of the dorayaki shop that drew me in, but it was the story that kept me watching, smiling, then later crying unashamedly. Thank goodness the plane’s lights were dimmed! I really had no idea what I was walking into–the only real hints I had were the drama categorization and the short trailer showing Sentaro learning how to make real an from Yoshii Tokue. The movie ended up sharing so much more than that, including such topics as the human spectrum of emotions regarding helping others, the cages others build and that we create on our own, as well as our resilience and ability to start again. As you can tell, this discussion will include a fair amount of spoilers, so if that deters you from watching, please take my suggestion now to try the film and let me know your thoughts.
It’s not too long after the exposition introducing our characters and their implied circumstances that we meet Tokue again and Sentaro finally asks her to help him. His invitation doesn’t come from pure good will, but only after he tries her own sample of an that blows his own manufactured version out of the water. When Tokue discovers the truth of his dorayaki, she’s horrified–the outrage on her face and tone of voice is both endearing and hilarious. As she rightfully says, “You have to make your own bean paste!”
The process starts each day before the sun rises, and we have the privilege of experiencing the full ordeal along with Sentaro the first time. It’s the type of instruction I belatedly wish I could have shared with my own grandmother, since my mom has limited knowledge of the family recipes. They barely finish in time for the shop’s opening at 11AM, but customers immediately note the difference in taste and texture. Tokue’s an is superior in every way, and also brings out the best in Sentaro’s pancakes.
This is where the story takes a darker turn. As quickly as word spreads about the high quality of dorayaki, so, too, does a rumor regarding Tokue’s crippled limbs. Through an ugly interaction between the shop’s true owner and Sentaro, we find out that Tokue lives in a sanatorium, an isolated village. The disgust on the owner’s face and excessive sanitizing of her hands shows just how deeply ingrained the misunderstanding and discrimination towards people with leprosy is in the generations that grew up during and before the last world war. Those feelings continue to infect the current generation, and when the rumor spreads, business slows down to a noticeable crawl. There’s a sad truth of the stigma spreading more assuredly and faster than the actual infection, which is not highly contagious.
When Sentaro and Wakana visit Tokue’s home, they see a place filled with sociable people who appreciate the beauties of life to the fullest. Her too soon death may follow a life spent in the shade, but the brief time she shared with Sentaro and Wakana will stay with them forever. Hopefully with each interaction between them and others, Tokue’s light will spread and create joy elsewhere.
At the film’s conclusion, I sat in my plane seat stunned at the emotions roiling through me. I so badly wanted to ask KWoo what he thought since he was sitting next to me, but then of course everyone watches their own films on the plane since you can’t really see anyone else’s screen. So then I slowly watched the film again, pausing now and then to take notes so I could share the story with you all. I now know that the movie is on Netflix with subtitles, so if you subscribe there you should add it to your watchlist. The drama is not overdone in the slightest, opting more for silence and facial expressions than any forced dialogue. Both Sentaro and Wakana lean towards keeping their own thoughts to themselves, letting the chatter of others envelop and wash over them. Their quiet invited me to observe and listen more carefully than I might have otherwise. If you have seen An, or end up watching it after reading here, please do let me know how you felt afterward!