Warm and unusually crowd-pleasing, Naomi Kawase's old-ways-are-the-best-ways foodie drama Sweet Bean is a celebration not just of homemade cooking but of taking your time and doing it right -- precisely what the celebrated director does herself. The film's Japanese title, An, refers to the sweet-bean paste that septuagenarian Tokue (Kirin Kiki) insists is missing from small-time restaurant proprietor Sentaro's (Masatoshi Nagase) dorayaki, the perfectly golden pancake-dollops that are the specialty of his counter-service establishment. Sentaro has placed an ad for kitchen help, and Tokue guns for the job, despite Sentaro's fears that she is not up to it physically. But soon the old charmer is teaching him that "An is the soul of a dorayaki" and getting him to rise before dawn to cook her way. ("Do buses run this early?" he asks her, in a woozy, green-lit cityscape.)
At first the stakes are as light yet rich as Sentaro's pancakes; then come marvelous cine-essays on bean-soaking and paste-prepping, plus -- in the film's tragedy-tinged final third -- a change-of-seasons montage for the ages. "It takes so much time," sighs Sentaro, early on, watching Tokue wash beans. But then, a moment later, he's marveling: "But they're beautiful." That's probably what patient audiences will feel, too. Drama arrives with a revelation from Tokue's past and an examination of Japan's historical treatment of citizens with infectious diseases, but this material doesn't feel as if it's been soaked and worried over with the high patience of the rest of the film.