'Kampai! For the Love of Sake': Film Review

Kampai still1-Gauntner-Japan and Sake and Fair-H 2016
Courtesy of IFC Films
Not very intoxicating.

Mirai Konishi's documentary explores the world of its subject through the perspective of three devotees.

Even for viewers who enjoy a nice cup of sake along with their sushi, watching two documentaries about the beverage may be one too many. Arriving on the heels of The Birth of Sake, released earlier this year, is Mirai Konishi's unabashed cinematic ode to the subject. Unfortunately, Kampai! For the Love of Sake is more cheerleading than informative, concentrating largely on personality profiles of three figures — two of them Westerners — obsessed with the Japanese rice wine. What might have made for an interesting 60 Minutes segment feels uncomfortably padded when stretched to feature length.

Among the film's principal subjects is John Gauntner, the author of such books as Sake Confidential and a self-described "sake evangelist." Born in Cleveland, he first encountered sake when, as a young man, he taught English at a high school in Japan. Although he returned to the States and began a career as an engineer, he remained passionate about sake, eventually returning to Japan and becoming a journalist specializing in the subject. He's now considered the world's leading non-Japanese sake expert.

Philip Harper, born in Cornwall, England and educated at Oxford, moved to Japan when he was in his twenties and served a grueling 10-year apprenticeship at a sake brewery, eventually rising up the ranks to become the first non-Japanese person to achieve the title of "master brewer" and create his own label. Kosuke Kuji took an easier route, entering his multi-generation family business that he expanded by wooing international customers and developing new, award-winning sake brands. He's a passionate marketer of his company's product, even making a YouTube video imploring consumers to continue drinking sake after the country was devastated by the Tohoku earthquake.

In between the chatty comments by the three figures and others, the film briefly delves into such issues as what food makes the best pairing with sake (mushrooms, according to one talking head) and its ideal temperature. The intricate brewing process, which involves rice going through several cleaning and distilling processes before the addition of mold and yeast, is illustrated in recurring segments.

But for all the passion exhibited by the filmmaker and the interview subjects, Kampai! — the title comes from a Japanese toast — is a mostly dull affair that has the feel of the sort of promotional video more appropriately seen at conventions and company gatherings.

Production: SYNCA Creations, Wagamama Media

Distributor: Sundance Selects

Director/screenwriter/editor: Mirai Konishi

Producers: Chiaka Yanagimoto, Mirai Konishi

Executive producers: Nao Komai, Soojun Bae, Michael J. Werner, Neileke Driessen

Directors of photography: Masami Inomoto, Mirai Konishi

Composer: Stephen Viens

Not rated, 93 minutes