Film Review: The Birth of Saké

WARNING: if you love the very special beverage called saké, your mouth will be watering throughout this doc’s mesmerizing 94-minute running time. And if you don’t or are unfamiliar with it, you will probably want to give it a serious re-evaluation or firs
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The golden look, distinctive flavor and exhilarating effect of saké constitute one of life’s more civilized joys. Erik Shirai makes his directorial debut with this deliciously textured and rewarding doc about its actual creation and effect on not only those who imbibe it, but those who painstakingly craft it as well.

It all starts with the simple rice grain, but, like so many things in Japanese culture, it has a rarefied complexity and refinement about it. The Birth of Saké focuses on the 144-year-old Tedorigawa Brewery in northern Japan, one of the last few places to make saké by hand rather than by machine. The responsibility lies with a tight-knit group of men who leave their homes every year for six months and take the rice through the various stages until the final product. Saké brewing demands constant attention—like a child, it is observed—converting the starch that is rice into sugar which then must ferment, producing a yeast which transforms into one last blend that has to be churned for a month before the saké is pressed like the wine it is.

It’s always easy in these docs to focus on the colorful people involved and, indeed, Shirai delves into the personalities and domestic lives of some of these men he obviously adores. They’re a real bunch of earthy charmers, jovially joking and singing, using brooms as samisens (guitars), and we also see the toll their work takes on their families and how lonely some of them are, who actually yearn to return to their jobs for this camaraderie. But, for the most part, Shirai takes a more rarefied and elegant tack, lovingly staying with the process of saké-making, making it the truly living thing that it is, as well as some hypnotic images of the brewed rice in its various incarnations.

The fact that it is indeed a dying art adds a real poignancy. Shirai brings up changing tastes, which have led to less distinctively robust flavors and lighter, more accessible ones more appreciated by women and the young, and notes how saké drinking itself has dropped severely in recent years in favor of beer, wine, whiskey and soju.

Click here for cast and crew information.