A Whisky Family – All the Anime

October 14, 2023


By Jonathan Clements.

Thirty-something Rui Komada (voiced by Saori Hayami) is torn between pursuing her personal dreams and turning around her ailing family business, a whisky distillery that has been struggling to cope with declining drinking habits and supply-chain issues in the aftermath of a natural disaster. After her father’s death, she inherits a company on its last legs, but resolves to get it back on its feet in Komada: A Whisky Family.

We see her struggles initially through the eyes of Kotaro Takahashi (Kensho Ono), a young journalist for an online news site, who is flabbergasted to discover Rui and her staff striving to bring a forgotten brand of whisky back from the dead. Rui has developed an obsession with the KOMA brand, once cherished by her father and grandfather, but now forgotten amid the cut-throat competition of discount distilleries. Can she even work out how to make KOMA again, or is it all a scotch mist?

“When I interviewed people involved in the whisky industry for the film,” comments producer Kenji Horikawa, “they spoke so enthusiastically about it that they won me over. I ended up fascinated by the passion that people put into craft of making whisky.”

Director Masayuki Yoshihara agrees, seeing in the painstaking process of maturing a keg of whisky a powerful analogy for the craft of making animation. “It takes years for their work to produce results,” he notes of the Komada family, “and Rui works on making whisky that will be handed down to the next generation… I hope that through the two main characters’ learning how to face their work, they will also find a clue within themselves as to what they really want.”

“From the first time I read the script, I was very excited,” said Yoshimasa Hosoya, who plays Yasumoto in the film. “It is a work filled with the fun and difficulties of manufacturing [whisky]. If you look into the lives of the people who live that life, there are many things that you just can’t see from the outside.” The film is, in fact, the fifth release from PA Works in its “working” sub-series, that inevitably offers a deep-dive into the way that particular industries function. Most memorably, of course, the company produced Shirobako, which offered a warts-and-all insight into the way that anime is made. Now it turns to booze, although whisky is a topic that has long united the distant nations of Scotland and Japan.

Most famously, Masataka Taketsuru was the scion of a sake-brewing family, who embraced Japan’s new-found love of modernity by travelling to Europe to learn about foreign drinking habits. He ended up in late 1918 at the University of Glasgow, where he studied organic chemistry under Thomas Stewart Patterson, before seeking work experience at distilleries in Campbeltown, Strathspey and Bo’ness. He also fell in love with Jessie “Rita” Cowan, a doctor’s daughter from Kirkintilloch, who he met after she asked him to teach her younger brother judo. The couple were married in 1920, shortly before they left for Japan, where Rita had promised to help her new husband make “real whisky.”

Taketsuru was instrumental in setting up the Kotobukiya distillery (later known as Suntory), before moving to Yoichi in Hokkaido to set up his own company, eventually known as Nikka – it was Taketsuru’s belief that Hokkaido was the part of Japan most similar to Scotland, and hence the best place to make whisky. Nikka Whisky remains a familiar brand in modern Japan; in 1989, the couple’s nephew Takeshi would bring the company full circle by acquiring the Ben Nevis distillery.

And that’s before we even get into the drama – the couple’s struggle for a child of their own; their tribulations in bringing whisky onto the market in the middle of a world war, and Rita’s torn allegiances in the 1940s. As a naturalised Japanese citizen, she was spared internment, but had to contend with hostile neighbours and regular police raids. Unsurprisingly, the story of the Taketsurus and the birth of Japanese whisky had enough incident in it to become a TV series all of its own, adapted into the live-action show Massan (2014) in which the American Charlotte Kate Fox played a character based on Rita Taketsuru. With the true story already immortalised on film, PA Works instead turned in animated form to this lower-key examination of how the whisky industry actually creates its product.

“Once you see this film,” commented Kotaro actor Kensho Ono, “I’m sure your drink will taste more delicious than usual.”

“This is the animated story of a particular craft,” notes producer Horikawa, “but it’s sure to sink into your heart after being distilled through the perspective of the film staff.” See what he did, there?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Komada: A Whisky Family is screening at Scotland Loves Anime.