The Harmonious Brew: Tribeca Film Festival educates on 'The Birth of Saké'

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Erik Shirai’s documentary, The Birth of Saké, begins with one of its subjects describing the Japanese brew as a “living thing.” What follows is the genesis of that year’s rice crop bubbling in womb-like tanks to produce a saké made the old-fashioned way. The brewing of saké, Japan’s signature alcoholic beverage, is the framework for Shirai’s story about the workers at the Tedorigawa company in Northern Japan. They include the brewmaster or “toji,” Teruyuki Yamamoto, and the sixth-generation head of the 144 year-old, family-owned company, Yasuyuki Yoshida. All of them believe that harmony, created and preserved by their gentle brewmaster during the complicated fermentation process, is what produces great saké.

Twenty-seven year-old Yoshida may be an heir to his family’s brewery, but he is also Yamamoto’s acolyte, a budding brewmaster. His apprenticeship represents part of the 2,000-year old tradition preserved at Tedorigawa, a company that eschews the automated methods now used at most other breweries. It relies instead on a small group of saké-makers who live and work at the company six months of the year; their work and their private lives are recounted in The Birth of Saké. In celebration of the documentary’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Yoshida and Yamamoto were in New York City with Shirai, who is a Japanese-American. We caught up with them at the Smyth Hotel.

It was Shirai’s chance meeting with Yoshida that sparked the making of The Birth of Saké, which was accomplished over two years with a two-person crew, Shirai and his producer Masako Tsumura. “We wanted a documentary that never strayed away from the true essence of the saké-makers,” Shirai explains. “With everything that is happening in filmmaking now, it’s easy to make a film where your fingerprints are all over it. I wanted to lean back and get out of the way.” Post-production took a year, but the result is an accomplished debut documentary that is beautifully photographed and well-edited (by Takeshi Fukunaga and Frederick Shanahan), as well as skillfully scored and mixed. 

According to Japanese tradition, women are not allowed in a saké brewery, although apparently an exception was made for Masako—and is being made throughout Japan as young women seek work as saké-makers. Yoshida explains that a goddess protects the process, and it is believed that she would become angry over the presence of another woman. “We are thinking about hiring a woman,” he says. “Men have the strength and they put in very difficult hours, but saké is our life, like the young life of a baby, as we say in the film. Sometimes it needs a woman’s care.” And does the toji agree? Conversation lapses into Japanese for a few minutes, and Yamamoto gives a tentative nod. “I think so,” Yoshida says. “We are talking about it.” Then, all three men laugh, but with good humor and a conviviality that seeks to include their skeptical female interviewer. “He has a kind heart,” Yoshida says of his mentor.

Shirai adds that while it is expected in Japan that the eldest son will take over the family brewery, few of them become brewmasters. “Yasuyuki is unusual because he wants to do it,” he says. “I found it interesting that he was influenced by the brewmaster, that the love of the craft grew in him.” Like many iconoclasts who strive to preserve evanescent traditions, Yoshida has a great fondness for the land. “Even when I was very young,” he says, “I knew I would want to stay where I was born. I love my family and my home.” In the documentary, Shirai films him on the road, selling to distributors and store owners, his charismatic personality an obvious asset, yet it is at the brewery that he appears content, speaking sotto voce with Yamamoto about their concern for the workers, or the rising temperature of the fermenting rice.

At times, The Birth of Saké is an articulation of a profound human dilemma, whether in this era of globalization, anyone can carve out a place for craftsmanship and uniqueness, for the “living thing.” “What I want the audience to take away from the documentary,” the filmmaker says, “is not the desire to drink saké as much as an appreciation of the people who make it. We are talking about a dying art, which should be kept alive.”