Film Review: Kampai! For the Love of Sake

An international Sake love story
Film Review : “An international Sake love story”

Kampai! For the Love of Sake

Making its Asian premier at the Tokyo International Film Festival, “Kampai! For the Love of Sake” is a labour of love. From the filmmakers to the participants in the film, it’s a celebration of sake and the life journey it has provided to many. The documentary takes the right approach by keeping its focus on individuals in the industry rather than tackle the industry as a whole or sake’s rich history. The focus is centred on 3 men living in Japan, whose live are consumed by sake: an American, a British and a Japanese.

This focus on foreigners in the industry surprised me when the film started; prior to the screening all I knew was that it was a documentary by a Japanese director about Japan’s national alcoholic drink, sake (or nihonshu as it’s referred to in Japanese). The inclusion of foreigners involved in the production and promotion of sake works as a bridge to link sake from the Japan to the rest of the world. Similarly by making around half the film in English it further broadens the international appeal to viewers at festivals or cinemas outside of Japan. Regarding the film as a promotion tool for Japanese sake, it only makes sense to make the film easily accessible to a foreign audience.

The film is the feature length debut from American educated, journalist/filmmaker, Mirai Konishi. He clearly has a love for Japanese rice wine. Sake’s further promotion and success throughout Japan and the world are themes repeated throughout the doc. The film loses its way slightly in the middle, but ultimately achieves what Konishi set out to do in making “a movie that will make people want to drink sake after they have finished watching.”

We are first introduced to British ex-pat Phillip Harper, whose passion for sake led him from enthusiast to working his way up the brewing ladder to become the first foreign master sake-brewer in Japan. Then there’s American ex-pat, John Gauntner who has been dubbed the “The Sake Evangelist” for his work promoting, teaching and writing about sake both in Japan and abroad. Lastly, the film features a Japanese brewer, 5th generation Japanese sake brewer Kosuke Kuji from Iwate Prefecture’s “Nanbu Bijin” brewery. His new school tactics and promotion of sake receive friction from the old guard of sake brewers. He’s determined not to listen to anyone and take sake to new places both domestically and abroad.

Director, Mirai Konishi follows the familiar talking heads documentary approach, but crosscuts with scenes of sake in all forms from inception to end drinker. He takes us as local as rice fields in Japan to around the world in overseas bars, breweries and restaurants where people are producing and enjoying sake. The film succeeds in keeping the stories personal while accessible to foreign viewers. It’s interesting viewing as a non-Japanese to see how a couple of outsiders broke into a fairly inclusive industry within Japan and the impact they are making both domestically and abroad. We’re also shown the passion for sake outside Japan flurish. The film follows “Sake Evangelist” John Gauntner to N.Y.C. where he speaks to an enthusiastic Japan Society audience about sake. He then travels to North Carolina where a few of his old students have started their own Japanese restaurant and sake micro brewery. Some of these scenes seem to speak to Japanese sake brewers in Japan, providing evidence that it’s worthwhile to strive towards a larger overseas market much like French wine or Scottish whisky does.

The film veers off course a bit when trying to tie sake to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and its impact on the industry. We follow a friend of our Japanese brewer, Kosuke Kuji. This fellow brewer lost everything in the tsunami and had to decide if he should keep going at that point. The film then veers back to Kuji, who being from the adjacent area has his business in jeopardy because of the disaster. During this time people are encouraged by the government not to indulge in things like alcohol when there are bigger issues at stake. Kuji, not content to let his business go down, uses this opportunity to promote his brewery on social media and encourage people that buying from the region is in fact a way to help. This section isn’t bad, but lacks a sense of depth in that other industries were surely just as deeply effected by the disaster. There is similarly no mention of concerns about quality or radiation from sake ingredients produced in the region effected by the damaged powerplants.

The film works best when it focuses on sake; its vast variation, its allure and its possibilities for the future both within Japan and abroad. The film stresses that exporters must have a better understanding of the drink, stricter quality control and a knowledge of appropriate food pairings. It’s the visceral moments showing people enjoying good food and great sake that are the most rewarding. This becomes heightened by the end after spending time with 3 guys who dedicate their lives to the drink. At the core, the film is the story of 3 men with varied backgrounds, whose passion for sake gave them meaning; a pursuit to follow a dream and passion without worrying about anything else. Those with even a mild interest in Japanese culture or sake should find a lot to like about this doc. Those already interested in sake should similarly find themselves inspired not to settle for average sake. All sake isn’t created equal you just have to dig a little deeper.

This one scores 3.7 out of 5 smashes

*Image copyright 2015 WAGAMAMA MEDIA LLC.

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James Mallion

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