The fascinating 6-month traditional brewing method for Japanese saké is chronicled in Erik Shirai's entrancing documentary.
The Birth of Sake (Tribeca Review)
Traditional sake brewing in Japan dates back over 2000 years, but as manufacturing grows and sake sales decline there are fewer Japanese brewing companies that make sake through the traditional means. One such brewery still implementing the painstakingly arduous process of fermenting rice into alcohol is the Tedorigawa brewery in the Hokuriku region of northwest Japan. The sake company has been operating for nearly 150 years, and when it’s passed to the next heir in 2020, he will become the 6th member of his family to run the brewery. At Tedorigawa, a brewmaster guides his team of nearly twenty men through a procedure of steaming, kneading, and preparing rice over the course of 6 months. Documentarian Erik Shirai follows the group of sake brewers at Tedorigawa for a full year as they live together and craft old-fashioned Japanese sake in his new documentary The Birth of Saké, which has its World Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Shirai develops an atmospheric feel to his film, primarily utilizing natural sound and the conversations between employees at Tedorigawa. The talking head sections are given less emphasis than real moments of collaboration that unfold during the brewing process. Shirai’s camera lingers on detailed close-ups of hands as they press the rice, or the puffs of steam that envelop various workers. Some of the director’s previous work was with The Travel Channel’s No Reservations, which makes sense given the enticing way he shoots rice in this documentary. The sporadic use of slow-motion in conjunction with the continuous, waving arm movements of the Tedorigawa staff gives The Birth of Saké a contemplative, meditative quality that’s occasionally entrancing. The method is so repetitive, and the workers’ routine has become so exact that the challenging process becomes oddly alluring.
That said, The Birth of Saké outlines the many difficulties that face Tedorigawa and its staff. To brew the sake, workers must spend 6 months away from their families, living at the brewer and rising for breakfast at 4:30 in the morning, only to work through dinner at night. The climate is frigid, and the employees spend so much time massaging rice that their hands lose feeling. Many who work at Tedorigawa have to seek employment elsewhere for the remaining months of the year, and these harsh conditions have made it increasingly difficult for the brewery to recruit new hires. Many who work for Tedorigawa are approaching retirement age. Others leave when they find the work too grueling. These and financial obstacles work to threaten the future of traditionally brewed Japanese sake.
The documentary interweaves the group’s work at the brewery with the “off-season” lives of certain employees, including the company’s impending heir Yasuyuki Yoshida. Yasuyuki spends the remaining 6 months of his year traveling the world to sell the Tedorigawa sake, pitching or taste testing with restaurants in Japan and abroad. As sake consumption decreases in Japan, many Japanese sake brewers have accommodated by offering lighter and sweeter varieties of the drink. Bucking trends, Tedorigawa has continued to brew their bolder, more distinctively flavored sake with the hope of appealing to traditionalists. For Yasuyuki, this harsher taste yields mixed results for sales.
Other tangents focus more closely on the limited time the Tedorigawa staff gets to spend with family. Erik Shirai largely plays interview audio through voiceover and therefore maximizes his natural footage. These segments provide a fuller portrait of the lives of sake brewers; however, they’re sparse on detail and not as riveting as the sections featuring the brewery.
There’s artistry in seeing the aging brewmaster at Tedorigawa meticulously monitor his brews’ temperatures in order to keep them regulated. The artisanal procedure is presented elegantly, and there’s a calming aspect to The Birth of Saké. Though the movie is slow in parts, Erik Shirai’s debut documentary feature is an entertaining glimpse into an ancient technique as its practice begins to die away. The Birth of Saké is a hypnotizing ode to Japan’s primary alcoholic export.