Full disclosure. KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE will make you want to seek out your nearest sake tasting. This, ahem, intoxicating documentary about the national drink of Japan, and the people who have made it their life’s work, is a paean to more than just rice wine. It is a consideration of tradition in transition and the wondrous possibilities that being open to new ways can engender.
The heroes are an unlikely trio, two who chose to walk the path of sake, and one who was born to it, but chafed under familial expectations. The stories of their moments of epiphany have the whiff of fate about them, though none of them could have foreseen it. John Gauntner, an American kid looking for adventure who came to Japan to teach English over a quarter of a century ago and never left. Philip Harper, a Brit who was studying European languages when, on a whim, he came to Japan at the same time, also to teach English, and Kosuke Kuji, the fifth-generation of a sake brewing family who was more interested in baseball and America than the mysteries of producing the perfect cup of sake.
We see them in action before we learn their backstories, and this is the perfect way to understand how sake cultur has taken over their lives. Gauntner sampling sake and talking poetically about the differences between the different varieties, to Harper, whom we first see tackling a climbing wall while bantering in fluent Japanese with the facility’s owner about breaking one of the hand-holds, to Kuji making sales calls overseas where he introduces his wares to a hesitant potential clientele with barely contained delight. We learn who they are on a level that said backstory only amplifies, and making us wait is a clever device to further pique our curiosity.
From sake bars, to an accidental writing career, to the way an American host family brought home to Kuji just how splendid his inheritance was, theirs is a story of taking chances and bucking a system that had been in place for centuries. Starting with Kuji wanting to brew the sake himself, unheard of for a brewery owner or his family, to the shortage of master brewers that allowed Harper to finally have his chance to move into the profession with a brewery owner willing not only to take a chance on him to keep the brewery going, but also open to new ways of brewing that blend old and new into a product that revitalized his business.
The painstaking, labor-intensive process of converting rice, water, and koji into wine is examined in detail, but this is no dry lecture. The participants convey their own rapture and obsession (there are no two better words to describe it) as they gently massage the carefully cultivated and cooked rice, or sample the wares of a start-up sake brewery in North Carolina. This is science and art combined, with proper pairings and the perfect serving temperature of the sake itself, the stuff of endless, and endlessly fascinating conversations. At one point, Harper, with a wicked gleam in his eye, recalls that no one he has ever brewed with could believe that someone with someone with a degree from Oxford would choose this. And the way he says it, you just know that for him, it was not so much a choice as a calling.
The impact of the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011 figures into the doc. None of the three were directly affected, aside from the psychic shock, of course, but the brewing community is a close-knit one, and one owner whose brewery was destroyed is seen visiting the ruins during visit to Fukushima. One that is short because of the residual radiation. Later, we see Harper talking up the man’s sake to a potential client. What it says about the character of all concerned speaks volumes.
The word “kampai” itself is the traditional toast when drinking rice wine, and KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE could offer no better cinematic one than this.