Mirai Konishi’s Kampai! For the Love of Sake wears its deep adoration for the traditional Japanese rice wine of the title on its sleeve. The documentary is roughly centered around three sake experts with vastly different cultural backgrounds and experiences: Kosuke Kuji, a brewmaster who inherited a company that’s been in his family for generations, and expats John Gauntner, an American sake journalist, and Philip Harper, a Briton who rose from a mere sake brewer to heading his own label. Even when he isn’t traveling the world following his three subjects, who all take advantage of the growing demand for sake from either a journalistic or marketing perspective, the filmmaker emphasizes the global appeal of the popular drink simply by having Kuji, Gauntner, and Harper explain how they ended up settling in Japan and devoting their lives to sake. The film is never short on theorizing what drives people to profess their love for the drink, but for all the varied anecdotes provided, Kampai! lacks for historical and cultural context.
Konishi promises a compelling analysis on the sociological role of sake in Japanese life and history (and its influence on other world cuisines), only to ignore cultural complexities and essential information. Notably, Kampai! continually focuses on the making of sake in Japan, which is revealed (in part through the enigmatic Harper’s intriguing recollections of his nascent years as a brewer) as a modest blue-collar occupation that encourages unforgiving hours; these images contrast sharply with scenes of a sake company in North Carolina, whose squeaky-clean facility caters its niche product to Americans with adventurous palettes. But Konishi only seems willing to use these scenes to outline a redundant primer on how to make sake.
After a lengthy look at the devastating effects the massive 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami had on the sake industry, Kampai! inevitably reveals itself to be an elaborate infomercial for Westerners. As sales were sinking, Kuji took to YouTube to give an announcement on the importance of drinking sake, especially during difficult times. Kuji essentially repeats the same message throughout his interviews, and without ever elaborating on exactly why it’s important to drink sake (Konishi also never takes Kuji to task on his questionable opportunism after the earthquake). In this regard, the final cheerful montage of celebratory toasts feels empty and borders on cynical advertising: You may crave a glass of sake, though you’ll most likely know exactly the same about the drink before the film began.