Monday, August 15, 2016

Kampai! For the Love of Sake

Frankly, a potent potable is only as good as the rituals and traditions that come with it. Japanese rice wine, known collectively as sake, has some of the best. It can be served hot, chilled, or at room temperature, but is always best enjoyed with others. Mirai Konishi introduces viewers to the brewers and journalistic evangelists who are maintaining and spreading the sake tradition beyond Japan’s borders in Kampai! For the Love of Sake (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

John Gauntner will help introduce us to sake, because that is his job. He came to Japan purely for a brief adventure before getting serious about his engineering career, but fell in love with the country—sake most definitely included. He became the preeminent western sake journalist and regularly runs sake tasting workshops for appreciative westerners.

For the distinctions between the many different kinds of sake, we refer you to Gauntner’s publications. For the details on brewing see either Kosuke Kuji, who reinvigorated his family’s Nanbu Bijin brewery, and Philip Harper, the first (and only, so far) non-Japanese Toji master brewer for the Kinoshita Brewery. We see some of their brewing processes, but not enough to glean any trade secrets, which is probably just as well.

Both Nanbu Bijin and Kinoshita presumably stand to gain from the film’s publicity, but sadly it is already too late for Blue Kudzu in Asheville, North Carolina. Founded by graduates of Gauntner’s program, Blue Kudzu were real deal traditional sake brewers, but they have sadly already shuttered, reportedly in part due to costly delays in the permitting process. So thanks to the local regulators, there is no sense traveling to Asheville now, in hopes of sampling their brew.

Regardless, it is surprisingly interesting to hear how these diverse but thoughtful people relate to sake. Of course, anyone who has seen their share of Ozu and Naruse films, particularly the latter’s seedier classics, like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, appreciates the social significance of pouring sake for one’s drinking partner. Although the subjects were not untouched by the tragedy of Fukushima, the film is mostly an upbeat and informative ode to sake. It even makes product placement look quite elegant. Recommended for refined food-and-drink palates, Kampai! For the Love of Sake opens this Friday (8/19) in New York, at the IFC Center.