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‘Sake Bomb’

by Kaori Shoji

On the one hand, I’m prepared to love this movie. Junya Sakino, director of “Sake Bomb,” gets it, as they say. He is one of a growing breed of Japanese filmmakers who studied in the U.S. and are now working there. “Sake Bomb” — a film about a nice, unassuming Japanese guy who travels to America looking for his girlfriend — has it spot on. The cultural clashes, the language difficulties and the guy’s dawning realization that, as a Japanese tourist in the land of the free, he cuts about as much ice as a butter knife could carve off an iceberg. And if you don’t know what a Sake Bomb is, look no further than the film’s trailer and tell yourself never to order one in a Los Angeles bar for as long as you live.

It has its good points, but on the other hand, “Sake Bomb” seems to pander a bit much to the insecurities and sense of inadequacy that are a big part of life for Japanese living in America. And as the movie amply illustrates, it doesn’t get a whole lot better for native Asian-Americans either.

“Sake Bomb” will elicit laughs from the audience in Japan, but ultimately, discomfort will wash over them like a murky tide. Are we Asian-Americans really so clueless and adorable, in that pitiful, puppy-up-for adoption kind of way?

Perhaps it’s the cast. Gaku Hamada — who seems the closest thing to a cute pup — plays Naoto, a sake maker who hops on a plane to LA to try and locate his Asian-American ex-girlfriend. Naoto drops in on his uncle (Hiroyuki Watanabe) and cousin Sebastian (Eugene Kim) — a wannabe YouTube star with his own studio (which is actually a bedroom in his father’s house).Sebastian himself has been dumped and is now on the rebound, though the breakup has left him bitter, cynical and ready to strangle any Asian girl hitting it off with a white dude in a bar.

Sebastian looks at the sweet, unassuming and strangely serene Naoto (all typical qualities fostered on the archipelago, right?) and thinks it would be OK to take him on a road trip to northern California, where Naoto’s ex is supposed to be living. The plan is for Sebastian to teach his Far-East cousin how to be a savvy American while also doing a little soul searching of his own. And, hopefully, he’ll get laid along the way and leave Naoto weeping in the dust.

There’s a lot of hilarity in the dialogue, but true Americana road-movie poignancy eludes the Naoto-Sebastian duo. Personally, I kept waiting for Naoto to whip out an onigiri (rice ball) whenever they’re stalled in LA traffic, or look for a vending machine that sells Ooi Ocha (a popular type of green tea).

The presence of Hamada makes the movie feel that much more local, and Kim plays the loud-mouthed Asian-American cliche all the way. Between the pair of them, they undo most of the “Cool Japan” image that performers like Rinko Kikuchi and Tadanobu Asano have been working so hard on all these years. In “Sake Bomb,” the Japanese abroad is right back to square one. Such sadness.