A trio of naturally compelling working-class success stories is inadvertently diluted by inferior talking-head interview footage in sake documentary Kampai! For the Love of Sake. Writer-director Mirai Konishi tries to make sake, which he describes in voiceover narration as “Japan’s national beverage,” more accessible to the West by highlighting the diversity of sake buffs’ motives and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, Konishi shortchanges compelling blue-collar interviewees, like American critic and self-described sake evangelist John Gauntner, by trying to address too many topics, like the industry’s ongoing financial difficulties in post-Fukushima Japan. The testimony of vendors and customers is also reduced to unreflective soundbites. An aspiring brewer gushes about Gauntner’s praise and ignores his guarded criticism. Even moving anecdotes, like an earthquake survivor’s account of a post-disaster Tohoku, would have benefited from a few follow-up questions.
Konishi’s scattered focus is made especially frustrating by the way he singles out but fails to develop his three most charismatic main subjects: Gauntner, Japanese brewery owner Kosuke Kuji, and British master brewer Philip Harper. Much of Kampai! concerns these three experts’ respective struggles to earn their intolerant peers’ respect.
But Gauntner’s, Kuji’s, and Harper’s charming underdog backstories can’t hold together Konishi’s sprawling primer. Kampai! feels like a manic ensemble drama that should have been a tight three-man show.
Kampai! For the Love of Sake
Directed by Mirai Konishi
Opens August 19, IFC Center