Wet Hot Sake (aka Nurunuru Cancan) probably doesn’t ping as high on the “OMGWTF Japan?” movie list as the work of Miike or Sion Sono for a couple of reasons, the first being purely a matter of circumstance and the second something very peculiar about the way that a lot of western fans consume foreign media, particularly Japanese live-action film. Firstly is the matter of visibility. Strange, mid-nineties Japanese comedies didn’t receive much exposure outside of Asia, and retrospection for foreign cinema often extends only to films recognized by both fans and serious critics as masterpieces, or at least important (genre films are exempt from this gross generalization. Please don’t comment to tell me so, I admit it, but no argument should be based on exceptions). A moderately successful film like this one, in spite of its completely insane premise, doesn’t stand out in a throng that everybody already ignores.
It probably doesn’t help that the only English-friendly dvd release didn’t come from Japan, much less a US distributor, but from Hong Kong mega-distributor Universe, who plastered the CAT III rating all over it.
But what an insane premise indeed! Bar owner Morio Mononobe prides himself on his hot sake, but he finds competition from an outdoor, mobile gypsy bar owner who uses a unique heating method for his sake that adds flavors that men find irresistible. The method involves a leotard, calisthenics and a virgin. See where this is going? To create this special sake, a leotard is filled with sake and a girl’s body heat combined with sweat and, well, other fluids transmogrify the ordinary sake into a miracle drink that not only tastes great, it re-grows hair. So Mononobe decides to try this method of heating with his eighteen-year-old daughter only to find that it doesn’t work. Being thick, he can’t really figure out why. Thus, he and one of his patrons, the perpetually horny Tsuneda, seek after the way to either replicate or best their competitor’s sake.
And most of this gets played completely poker faced. Sure, Tsuneda provides several broad comedic moments, but these are not the rule. Much of the movie consists of ludicrous scenes that neither the camera nor the characters nor the editing seem to take much notice of. The camera often lingers on a scene, reminiscent of so many serious Japanese films that deal with hubris, corruption, and broken familial trust, but always undercut by the events depicted, which never cease to be anything other than ludicrous. The idea itself ought to be ridiculous enough to dispel any fears that Wet Hot Sake was intended seriously. And it is funny, if only in its abject, unrepentant awfulness.
So why wouldn’t Wet Hot Sake, now fairly available to non-Japanese speakers and more than sufficiently weird to classify as a cult movie, be better known or discussed among fans of such? I suspect that much of the interest in Takashi Miike was driven by reports of unwatchable depravity in Fudoh and Ichi the Killer. When that’s combined with his interest in family films and actual, artistically valid cinema, people start to take notice, including people like The Weinsteins, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. Sion Sono seems (at least to me) more consistently interested in making real cinema, but his infamy, at least in the United States, was predicated on the opening scenes in Suicide Circle as well as reports that he spent his off hours performing street poetry and shooting gay softcore videos.
I’m not trying to accuse people who discovered Miike and Sono and the rest during the early-mid 2000’s of being mindless trend followers. But by-and-large there is an expectation -- accompanied by lots of online hype -- of transgressive, weird, or fundamentally effed up film making from Japan; there’s not really much buzz in the West over Japanese high school sports comedies, or anything so mundane, even when they’re really quite good. Wet Hot Sake pulls humor out of a thin, but gross concept utilizing lots of nudity but, for the most part, the actual sex is vanilla, and the perverse elements played solely for laughs. It’s actually not backwards or disgusting enough to fit the stereotype that some movie nerds are trying to convince themselves of, and that’s enough to put it far out of range for their selective viewing, not helped by its age or by the director's obscurity. A decade-and-a-half old sex comedy is obviously not going to be the height of nerd-cred relevancy when Sion Sono just made a three hour long epic about amateur upskirt photographers.
I can see the fun in watching something like Wet Hot Sake, but it is what it is.