As a movie genre, food porn came of age in the 1980s, when art-house curios like “Babette’s Feast” and “Tampopo” left audiences salivating into their popcorn buckets. To this foodie, however, the taste-sensation aspect of those movies tended to be superior to the stories they told. If you asked me whether I’d prefer to watch a mouth-watering documentary about the succulence of Japanese noodle soup or a wild fairy tale about a samurai/cowboy searching for the ultimate noodle-soup recipe (“Tampopo” was that movie, and it had its fans, though I wasn’t among them), the answer is: The documentary, please!
A great many of us were made for the Food Channel era, in which the spectacle of chefs and recipes and kitchen-confidential trade secrets became a theater all its own. That, in fact, is why the food-porn genre ultimately evolved into documentary — impassioned portraits of culinary mania like “The Search for General Tso” (an entire film devoted to one dish!), or “City of Gold,” in which the inspiring Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold makes you want to eat at every hole-in-the-strip-mall spice palace he discovers, or “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” an indelible portrait of one small sushi bar tucked inside a Tokyo subway station that may just serve the finest raw fish on the planet.
In that light, I was primed to see “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” a movie that promises to do for the rice-wine elixir of Japan what “Jiro” did for sushi. It’s not as if a movie about alcohol can’t get your pleasure centers popping too — director Jonathan Nossiter certainly did it with “Mondovino,” his 2004 wine documentary. But “Kampai!,” I’m disappointed to report, fumbles on all the basics.
It’s a randomly tossed salad of a movie, with a few winning sketches of people who’ve devoted their lives to the art and hedonistic delight of sake. After 90 minutes, though, you may leave with as many fundamental questions about sake as you had going in. Do the Japanese drink it hot as well as cold, or is the whole hot-sake thing, as is often said, just a Westernized gimmick? The movie doesn’t give you a clue. Is the sake industry in Japan now expanding or foundering? At different points in the film, each answer is suggested. What about the history of sake — when it was invented, how it evolved, the place it occupies in Japan? Early on, we learn that it’s been around “for centuries”…and that’s all we learn. “Kampai!” tells you little about the history of sake, but what’s worse, it evokes almost nothing of the mystery of sake.
There are a thousand sake breweries in Japan, many of which we would probably call micro-breweries, and the film visits a handful of them to fill in how premier sake gets made. It’s an arduous process, in which naturally grown rice is put through several stages of cleaning and distilling and then sprinkled with koji yeast, which begins the fermentation process, of which there are many levels. (It’s hard to tell anything from this movie, but to my untrained eye, making sake looked more complicated than making Western wine.) The most compelling character in the film is Philip Harper, a Britisher who grew up in the rural county of Cornwall and attended Oxford, then moved to Japan, where he became a master sake brewer. He describes his rigorous apprenticeship (10 years of rice-washing and fermentation-tending that began at 6:00 a.m. and ended in the middle of the evening), and though he remains an ebullient Brit, his values and personality are steeped in Japanese rituals of courtly reverence.
The other featured character is John Gauntner, a self-described “sake evangelist,” who started off as a radio-frequency circuit designer out of Cleveland and fashioned himself into something like the Robert Parker of Japan. That these two Westerners became formidable forces within an indigenous sake culture is certainly impressive, but the fact that the film focuses so intently on them is a little strange. They are not, by any means, interlopers, but the Japanese still own this industry (in every way), and Mirai Konishi, the writer, director, and editor of “Kampai!,” seems almost skittish about going deep into the locally grown nuances of sake passion.
The movie shows us a budding sake bar and brewery in, of all places, North Carolina, suggesting that the adoration for this beverage — clear, fruity, shimmering, intoxicating — is expanding out into the world. But is it? No documentary should give you the feeling that you would learn more by spending five minutes with a Wikipedia page than you would by watching the movie. “Kampai!” is scattered and rudderless, though the film’s biggest letdown is that it barely whets your whistle for a taste of sake. It might have been made “for the love,” but by the end the movie has squandered it.