TORONTO— “An” is a Japanese subtitled film about making pancakes. It’s one of those slightly artsy films that find their audience at film festivals with people who want movies that mean more than your average Hollywood fare.
Cages abound in this life. Jobs, debt, parents. Sometimes the cage is our own dreary resignation to mediocrity. At some level, “An” is a movie about being stuck and trying to enrich the places we are confined, like the canary that sings from its perch within the bars.
But on the surface “An” is about a man who makes dorayaki, a Japanese treat comprised of red bean paste slathered between two pancakes. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) bakes those cakes adeptly, but an, the red bean paste for which the film is titled, is beyond his skills.
Not particularly gripping stuff, and that’s life. And that’s where the beauty of “An” lies.
It’s a scandal to Tokue (Kirin Kiki) that Sentaro uses tin pails of bulk an to fill his dorayaki. She loves nothing more than the red beans and the stories they tell her as she creates an of a quality Sentaro didn’t expect of the 76-year-old with crippled hands.
She’s soon a surrogate mother, exacting but joyful and encouraging. Sentaro is humble and appreciative. His mother is gone, Tokue’s child was never born, and between them they find a contentment that had once been elusive.
But Tokue’s crippled hands have a story behind them, a secret that ties her to one of Japan’s darker chapters. This nation of islands was the last industrialized country to stop putting those afflicted with leprosy in forced quarantine. The stigma and fear of the disease overrode scientific evidence that it could be cured past the point of contagion, and so Japan did not let those cured of the disease back into the general population until 1996.
There are times when “An” verges on self-indulgence, with director Naomi Kawase letting the camera linger too long over tree shots and the kind of artsy cinematography that earns her mixed reviews.
But “An” stands out as a film that celebrates people for the truly great things they do, like Tokue’s dedication to making the most amazing an possible; a recipe done to perfection, quite possibly the best in the world.
“An” is also a tale of ordinary people suffering ordinary hardships—loneliness, a mundane job, being sold short by the world, missed dreams.
The context of the film won’t quite carry the same weight for Canadians as it will for Japanese, in part because the history of leprosy in Japan is cultural. But there is much to enjoy here, something filling and a little sweet.