For Love’s Saké (2018) Review

Introduction

It would be a slight understatement if we stated that eating/drinking is an important part of Japanese culture. It is, in truth, a fundamental part of Japanese culture. This importance of the culinary dimension is easily felt in cinema as many narratives, in one way or another, are structured around Japanese food, like Tampopo (1985). Noaki Segi is no stranger to directing food-narratives. In 2011, he directed a tale about ramen (Ramen Samurai) and, in 2014, a narrative about Karaage (Karaage Usa). And now with For Love Sake, he tackles Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage: saké. 

Review

Shiori Tachibana (Rina Kawaei), a star student with an incredible palate of wine, has long been dreaming of studying winemaking in France. When Noboru Asahina (Tomoya Warabino), a famous wine importer, says he can make her dream come true, she is immediately enthusiastic. But her friend, sensing Noboru’s sexual intentions, advices her to escape.

Due to the high demand for receiving training in wineries, Shiori’s professor, Yoichi Takanobashi (Kanji Tsuda), decided to assign training-places by a lottery. Shiori, dead-set on becoming an intern at a winery, sadly ends up at Nogami Sake brewery in Hiroshima. Even though she dislikes Saké, she has to go in order to make a chance to go study abroad the following year.

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Upon arriving at Nogami brewery, no-one seems to know about an intern. It quickly becomes clear that Kanji Nogami (Hayato Onozuka), who shows no interest in taking over the brewery of his father Teruyoshi Nogami (Ren Osugi), played a role in the acceptance of a new intern.

For Love’s sake might give the impression of being a romance narrative, but in fact it concerns, first and foremost, a falling in love with sake. Despite the focus on sake, the narrative does touch, albeit vaguely, upon the dynamics between men and a women. One such aspect concerns the contrast or tension between Shiori’s confident exposition of her wine knowledge and her humbleness concerning that knowledge when faced with Noboru Asahina. While it can be said that humbleness is a Japanese virtue or that Asahina is known as a true wine-connoisseur, her humbleness is also marked by a subtle seductive element – hereby echoing Riviere’s work on Womanliness as masquerade (Narra-note 1). A second aspect that For Love’s Sake quickly touches upon is men’s sexual intentions. While this subtly points to the inherent equivoque nature of relationships between men and women, Shiori is also revealed as new to the game of romance. This virginal lack of romantic experience – Shiori falling in love with Kanji – forms one of the three narrative axis’s – even though it is clearly the least important one.

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Besides the lingering presence of a romantic dimension, For Love’s Sake also functions, as the English title clearly implies, an introduction to the intricacies of brewing Japan’s most famous drink. This introduction, an introduction meandering throughout the narrative, forms the second axis of the narrative: the romantic axis of falling in love with Sake (and the dilemma it produces for Shiori). Note that many spectators are put in a similar position as Shiori (Narra-note 2). Not that the narrative will allows us to fall in love with sake – for that, we must drink, but that by following the interesting and informational narrative thread, we are enabled, like Shiori, to become somewhat more knowledgeable about the traditional and ‘familial’ process of brewing sake as such (General-note 1).

Because For love’s Sake acts as an introduction, the narrative is obviously packed with information (like the link between Shinto and Saké brewing (e.g. the autumn washing and the relation to life), the complexity and variety of Saké, the Osakabayashi, sake pairing, … etc.) and explicit terminology (like junmaishu, Junmai Daiginjo-shu, daki, …etc.). While such exposition about sake might have been a boring affair, the composed visualization and the great ‘narrativation’ – i.e. the great narrative structure, has turned For Love’s Sake, beyond its insightfulness about the process of brewing sake, into a truly entertaining and engaging experience.

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While other cultural aspects are also introduced throughout the narrative, these elements – be it the local specialty Bisho Nabe or the rice harvest – always bear some relation to the art of brewing sake. Through the insistence of master brewer Tsuboshima (Mantaro Koichi) to aid the rice harvest, we come, for instance, to feel the fundamental need of showing respect to the base product. Even Nogami’s work as ceramics salesmen is related to food and alcohol, as it subtly introduces the important but often forgotten interactions between ceramics and flavour.

The two first axis’s of the narrative develop, due to their intermingled nature, in tandem. This nature becomes clear when the openness towards Kanji is only able to occur when Shiori is able to drink sake and take her study of the process of sake brewing seriously. But it is also because of their intersection that the third and arguably the most central axis of the narrative is able to be introduced: the axis concerning the future of the brewery and the traditional way of brewing sake (Narra-note 3). It is in this light that For love’s Sake touches upon the problematic relationship between Teruyoshi and his son Kanji and infuses some family drama into the narrative mix (Narra-note 4). One could say that this axis, as closely intertwined with the axis of Shiori’s growing love for sake, forms the true focus of the narrative (Narra-note 5).

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For Love’s Saké’s cinematography is full of movement – a mix of fluid following shots, fluid spatial moving shots and subtle moving shots. That is not to say there are no fixed moments present in the cinematographical composition (Cine-note 1). Fixed moments are often used in the framing of speech, conversations and facial expressions – the three main sources for the narrative’s lightheartedness. When characters are fixed, seated for instance, within the narrative frame, there is often fixity thrown in the cinematographic mix (Cine-note 2). Fixity is also used to support the framing of the setting of Saijo and Hiroshima in general and the Nogami Sake brewery in particular. The narrative really succeeds in bringing the beauty of Hiroshima’s nature and the Saijo district in a natural way to the fore – a beauty that will entice many spectators to visit the region.

Rina Kawaei, who plays Shiori Tachibana, is successful in exploiting her cuteness (e.g. cute expressions, her slightly childish reactions, …) in an endearing but subdued way – a cuteness captivating the spectator in the narrative of sake (Acting-note 1, Acting-Note 2). While this cuteness is of course empowered by the (narrativized) lack with respect to sake, her endearing quality is also supported by her determination to learn and to overcome her lack of knowledge.

For Love’s Sake is a really enjoyable narrative, as long as one does not expect it to be a  Japanese romance narrative. Romance, while part of the narrative, is but a subtle frame, where the art of sake – the narrative’s main focus – comes to be framed. Besides the fact that For love’s sake succeeds in being an enticing invitation to visit Hiroshima’s sake district, it has also become, aided by Rina’s charming performance, one of the most engaging introduction to the art of brewing and the complexity of drinking saké to date.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: The fact that she has active ALDH2, a higher tolerance for alcohol – a tolerance that enables her to beat men in drinking, further plays with the dimension of womanliness as lack. This aspect remains, besides this one time, unused in the further narrative.

Narra-note 2: The narrative reveals, through Ichiki Arishige, that Shiori’s distaste for Saké is born from preconceptions founded in a non-knowing. It is only after realizing her non-knowing that Shiori find the openness to learn about Saké. Is it not funny to realize that racism often follows the same pattern?

Narra-note 3: In this fight for the preservation of the brewery, Teruyoshi aims to preserve tradition, while Kanji wants to reinvent. It is in learning the truth about Asahina’s plans for the brewery’s re-invention, a re-invention that amounts to nothing other than destroying tradition, that Kanji backs out of his plan of cooperation.

The respect Kanji has for the tradition of sake brewing and his father’s brewery is especially communicated in his backing out of his co-operation plan.

Narra-note 4: Behind Kanji’s conflict between his refusal to succeed his father and the fight over the preservation of the brewery hides an unresolved resentment. Note that Kanji’s resentment is also function of a not-knowing, a not-knowing affecting the image he had of his father.

Narra-note 5: This axis is also the axis that enables the field of dreams and hopes to be evoked. These dreams and hopes are not only those of Kanji and Shiori, but also the dreams of sake’s industries rising star Ichiki Arishige (Yuichi Nakamura) from Arishige brewery and those of Misaki (Mao Miyaji), a rice-farmer.

Cine-note 1: There are also various instances where fixed characters, for instance when standing, are framed with fluid moving shots.

Cine-note 2: While movement of characters, usually of Shiori, is present in these fixed moments, the framing of the narrative space is more important than following Shiori’s movements with that narrative space. But notwithstanding this fixity, fluid movement is never far away – see for instance Tachibana’s wine-tasting-sequence that opens the narrative.

Acting-note 1: It should not surprise us that Rina Kawaei was a former Idol. The function of a Japanese idol, e.g. enticing the fan with her lack, finds her truth in this romance narrative.

Acting-note 2: We also want to highlight that while we think her performance is great, we do not think Shiori’s function could only be embodied by her performance. In Japan, there are various actresses who are able to utilize their charming cuteness in order to captivate the spectator.

General-note 1: The familial nature of traditional Saké brewing is revealed in those moments where the master-brewer enjoys a meal with his co-brewers. While this familial aspect is only lightly touched upon in the narrative, it is essential in the tradition of brewing Saké.

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