After the success of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” back in 2011, it was about time someone shot a documentary about traditional Japanese bartending, and Satoshi Watanabe, a Yamagata native dealing with a local legend, 92-year-old bartender Keicihi Iyama, creator of the famous Yukiguni cocktail, seemed like the perfect choice to do just that. Let us see how he fared.
[From the film’s info] “The Yukiguni cocktail welcomes its 60th anniversary in the same year that the Heisei Era comes to an end. Since claiming first prize at the 1958 Kotobukiya (currently Suntory) Cocktail Competition, Yukiguni has become a favorite amongst bartenders all over Japan, with its continued consumption leading to a rightful spot as an industry standard. A bar critic once stated, “it’s the bar that makes the man”, and cocktail fans have flocked from all over the country to appreciate Keichi Iyama’s creation while listening to his tales in what has since become somewhat of a cocktail pilgrimage.”
The documentary is a tribute to both the cocktail and the man who invented it. However, “Yukiguni” is much more than a eulogy, since, in the two and a half years he took him to complete it, Watanabe managed to create a rather detailed portrait of Iyama, not only as a barman, but also as a husband and father, and the impact all of his actions in his three capacities had in the people around him. In that fashion, as we learn the impact he had with his cocktail and his general attitude as a professional to bartenders all over Japan (to say the least), we also learn of his almost non-existent relationship with his children, and a relationship with his wife that almost led her to complete exhaustion at some point, in order to let him pursue his dream. Despite some negative aspects though, in the end, Watanabe takes care of highlighting the fact that despite his faults, Iyama is a good man, with his current attitude towards his family proving just the fact, and his feeling for his now deceased wife working towards this direction.
On a secondary level, the documentary also presents the contemporary history of Yamagata and the history of the cocktail (bars) in Japan, always in connection with Iyama’s own story, which provides a clear parallel to both the aforementioned themes. The phrase “a bartender makes a bar” is heard repeatedly in the film, and Iyama truly embodies it, as his evident charisma fills the screen every time he speaks or is depicted preparing his cocktails and talking to his customers, and is the element that transforms an otherwise pretty generic bar to a cultural phenomenon.
Apart from the very interesting theme, the film also thrives in presentation. Most of the time, documentaries that reach the 90 minutes mark become tiresome, but Watanabe’s direction manages to do the exact opposite, by expanding the “narrative” to all the aforementioned themes, and by including interviews of different individuals, along with historic and present footage, which, in combination with some great editing, keeps the movie interesting for the whole of its duration. Furthermore, the excellent cinematography of Koichi Sato manages to take full advantage of the impressive colors of the Yukiguni and the rest of the cocktails that are presented in the film, while depicting the various bars and areas featuring in the movie in a very appealing light, almost as an “artsy” promotional video. The permeating jazz music and Kaoru Kobayashi’s narration also fit the film’s aesthetics quite nicely, implementing the same calm and sophisticated atmosphere that seems to appear in Kern and the other cocktail bars featuring here.
“Yukiguni” is a great documentary, a true joy to watch, and a film that by its ending will definitely make its audience both wishing to meet Iyama and to taste a Yukiguni as soon as possible.