Sooner or later, many Japanese directors — be they internationally acclaimed auteurs or industry outsiders — end up making what Sion Sono (a noted auteur/outsider himself) once described to me as “a real Japanese film.” To put it simply, this sort of film is aimed squarely at the domestic audience, especially folks looking for a good cry.

Naomi Kawase is a Cannes Film Festival regular whose work to date has often taken an autobiographical slant — in her 2003 film “Sharasoju” (“Shara”), she played a woman graphically giving birth, which foreshadowed her own real-life pregnancy. But her newest film, “An” (literally, “Red-Bean Jam”), which opened the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar this year, is one of these “real Japanese films.”

Kawase again focuses on people at the margins of Japanese society and investigates their place in the natural order, as she did in her 2007 Cannes Jury Prize winner “Mogari no Mori” (“The Mourning Forest”). But she has based “An” on Durian Sukegawa’s novel of the same title, instead of writing — as she has always done in the past — an original script. Also, she shot the film in Tokyo, which is another first for the director, who has set many of her films in her native Nara Prefecture.

Run Time 113 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The result is an objective distance — including distance from Kawase’s own not-inconsiderable artistic ego — that enhances the film’s fable-like power. Also, the shimmering beauty of Shigeki Akiyama’s cinematography — cherry blossoms have rarely looked so translucently glorious — makes the film’s celebration of life-in-nature vividly present, and makes the New Agey voice-over narration feel somehow redundant.

Both story and photography ably serve Kiki Kirin’s luminescent performance as Tokue, a 76-year-old woman who one fine spring day approaches Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), the taciturn master of a small shop selling dorayaki (pancakes filled with red-bean jam). In a funny, touching sequence, she gently pesters him to let her make the sweets — and he finally relents. Despite her age and infirmity, she proves to be a master jam-maker, and soon the shop’s loyal customers, and strangers from near and far, throng to buy her dorayaki, including a shy-but-perceptive teen named Wakana (Kyara Uchida).

Tokue, Sentaro and Wakana, who applies to work at the shop, form a sort of surrogate family, with Sentaro as the son and Wakana the granddaughter Tokue never had. Then the shop’s flighty owner (Miyoko Asada) hears that Tokue is a live-in patient at a nearby leprosarium and tells Sentaro to fire her. He resists, but the shop’s customers stay away, and Tokue is finally forced to leave.

This is not all, but the plot is not the point. Central instead is how Tokue’s accepting, caring personality transforms those around her. In every look and gesture she expresses delight in the sheer fact of being in the world — and with no bitterness whatsoever about her fate. Also, in their long exile from “normal” society (leprosy patients were forced by a 1953 law to live in secluded leprosariums) Tokue and her fellow patients have formed a tight community. Though discriminated against, they are not objects of pity.

Kawase reportedly isolated her three leads to deepen their on-screen connections, but Kiki, who has been battling cancer in real life for more than a decade, needed no coaching to capture Tokue’s look of radiance as she notices the play of light through the branches or rapt concentration as she watches beans bubble in the pot. And Japanese audiences, I’m sure, will cry bucketloads.

But at Cannes, critics hurled adjectives like “insipid,” “fluffy” and “sentimental,” much as I expected them to. So-called real Japanese movies are an acquired taste. And you will look long and hard for dorayaki in Cannes.

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