Historians, journalists and filmmakers have often documented the cult of personality worship found at the core of such fascist states as Nazi Germany, communist states like the Soviet Union and thoroughly screwed-up states like modern day Iraq. They have turned their sights less often on this phenomenon as it flourished in pre-war Japan. Director David Greenspan indirectly shines a bit of light on this overlooked historical curiosity with his endearing yet disturbing short film “Bean Cake.”
It’s the first day of school in 1933 Tokyo for 4th grader Uchida Taro (an excellent Ryuichi Miyakawa). While first days are bad enough anyway, what makes this day even more nerve-wracking for Uchida is that he’s the new kid in school, a transfer from one of Japan’s rural communities. Knowing her son is nervous, Uchida’s mother fixes him his favorite thing in the whole world, for breakfast: bean cakes.
Uchida sticks out immediately when he arrives for class. For one thing, his school uniform won’t be ready until the next day so he’s the only one wearing street clothes. Then he draws more unwanted attention to himself by getting caught daydreaming. The teacher (Chikara Inoue), a strict and humorless party line stalwart, towers over Uchida and repeats his question: What does the young boy like most in the world? The sensei expects to hear the stock answer: the Emperor. Yet, under the observant, possibly sympathetic eye of his pretty classmate Mihara (Sayaka Hatano), Uchida has the poor sense to answer honestly that what he likes best of all are his mother’s bean cakes.
Banished to the hallway for the rest of the day, refusing to change his answer even when given the opportunity to end his punishment, Uchida’s simple defiance earns Mihara’s admiration even while it shames his embarrassed mother. At day’s end, Uchida has to decide if his staunch individualism is worth the aggravation…and even more daunting, whether he likes those bean cakes even more than his pretty classmate.
Though simple on the surface, Greenspan’s film packs a powerful message in its simplicity. It even manages to fold a bit of a puppy love story into its celebration of nonconformity. Miyakawa is a real find here; his understated demeanor enhancing his quiet dignity throughout his ordeal. Celebrating individualism on the one hand, “Bean Cake” also demonstrates the awesome potential of any group, be it an organization, a corporation, or a state, to breed conformity. And too much conformity, like too many bean cakes, can be a bad thing.