For the Sake of Argument, by Dayne Linford
From the Wikipedia – “The sake bomb or sake bomber is a beer cocktail made by pouring sake into a shot glass and dropping it into a glass of beer.” While one of the many ways several characters in Junya Sakino’s Sake-Bomb get completely smashed, the titular cocktail also serves as an interesting metaphor for the Japanese diaspora portrayed in the film – a mixing of cultures, a lot of one and an export of the other, with leftover bits and pieces laying about. The subtlety and banality of the metaphor perfectly complements Sakino’s film, an examination of Japanese life in contemporary America.
Eugene Kim plays Sebastian, a second generation Japanese-American with no job and a recent breakup who insists on antagonizing every Asian he comes into contact with even while he idolizes Asian celebrities and pornstars of a previous generation as breakers of an “ethnic barrier.” Gaku Hamada plays Sebastian’s cousin, Naoto, a Japanese villager who takes a week off on the eve of taking ownership of a brewery to come to America in search of a former lover, his English teacher. Sebastian’s father is moved by Naoto’s story and orders Sebastian to help his cousin look for the teacher, which attempt Sebastian immediately derails by taking Naoto with him to crash a party attended by Sebastian’s ex. This kicks off a series of meetings leading each character closer to his goal and to self-realization.
The plot is fairly pedestrian, but it’s not really the point here. This is a texture film, deriving its power from the strength of its myriad characterizations and interpersonal conflicts. However, the screenwriter, Jeff Mizushima, struggles with the lack of forward momentum that typifies texture work, as well as the most important element, dialogue that feels lived in and natural. Though they’re types, one being loud and pushy and the other retiring and naive, the two leads have the best dialogue in the film by far, though even their lines abound with on-the-nose declarations and revelations. Mizushima has a habit of turning to this kind of dialogue to explain character motivation and decision making, instead of allowing things to be muddied and the audience to find their own way through. For the leads this is problem. For the side characters, it’s often debilitating.
That being said, there’s a real subtlety to the racial storytelling contained here, addressing difficulties in interracial relationships, ethnic enclaves, family, and friendship. Particularly interesting is Sebastian’s insistence on viewing the world through decidedly ethnic glasses, justifying his own racism, sexism and homophobia through his minority status. Generally, this is a problem possessed by the filmmaker in race-oriented film, but Mizushima and Sakino are too smart to fall into that trap. The film is above the main characters, generally, analyzing and challenging them instead of idolizing. Consistently, both Naoto but especially Sebastian find themselves underestimating the complexity of social situations, stepping completely unprepared into mess after avoidable mess, if only they’d bothered to pay attention to the subtle social cues other than ethnic status. For Naoto, who barely speaks English, his misunderstanding of American behavior is simply comedy, innocent and wide eyed, but the film lends Sebastian a more sinister tone, even though Sebastian himself is too complex for any overly negative portrayal. Sake-Bomb punishes Sebastian by usually allowing him to punish himself, creating problems through his insistent ignorance and pride. However, Sebastian’s failing in interpersonal communications also fail him in examining himself – even when attempting a sincere apology through text, he can’t help but use the obvious ethnic slant, typing, “Miso sorry” to the recipient. Though Mizushima’s dialogue generally lacks the subtlety that makes these films work, he has a profound sense of the psychological complexity of his leads and gives them generous space to work through their feelings.
Though the Asian characters are generally well rounded, interesting and complex, the other ethnic groups are not quite so well represented, with Mizushima and Sakino falling back on stereotypes as character devices. Even when positive, such as the homosexual who is unfailingly polite, kind, and romantic, this cheapens the ethnic dialogue taking place throughout the film. When negative, such as anyone with a Southern accent (why are there so many Southerners in San Francisco?), including a couple who thinks Naoto is “a retarded”, and a fat cop who questions the lead’s ability to speak English, it completely obscures the subtlety found in Sebastian and Naoto’s individual characterizations. This is doubly unfortunate, as only the metaphorical Sake in the title is well represented, while the beer it’s dropped in is, well, bland and forgettable. As a film about Japanese life in America, this is a key missing ingredient and very problematic.
All in all, despite its problems, Sake-Bomb is a fun, tongue-in-cheek if a little convenient mini road movie that largely succeeds in its interrogation of ethnic life in modern, mostly white America. It’s funny, heartfelt, unfailingly honest and I look forward to more films from everyone involved.