April 28, 2015

The Birth of Sake: A Look Inside Japan's Yoshida Brewery

Cooling just-steamed rice at Yoshida Brewery. Photo by Yasuyuki Yoshida.
Those who love sake or Japan or both will want to see "The Birth of Sake," director Erik Shirai's love letter to his ancestral country and its people, and a glimpse into the grueling work and hard-won camaraderie that are part of the fermented rice beverage-making process. I caught the last showing of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Shirai won a special jury mention in the best new documentary director category.

Shirai, who worked as a cameraman on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" travel show, says he stumbled upon his subject when he met the young scion of the 140-year-old Yoshida Brewery, Yasuyuki Yoshida, 27, at a promotional event. The brewery sells under the Tedorigawa label, a half dozen types of which are available in the U.S. and are prized for their elegance, finesse and balance.


Toji Teruyuki Yamamoto checking on his product up close. Photo by Erik Shirai.
At the heart of the film are toji (master brewer) Teruyuki Yamamoto, 68, and Yoshida, who is being groomed to take over the post of toji and become president of the brewery when his father retires. Yamamoto brings his pet bird with him to the Ishikawa Prefecture brewery every winter when he arrives for the six-month sleepover that all brewery workers have to commit to. He treats his sake "mother" and main mash with as much loving care as his bird, and talks of making sake in terms of raising a child, a process that requires constant attention, occasional crisis intervention and more experience and intuition than book smarts.

Second-generation Japanese American Shirai, noting that the actual brewing process is repetitive and not that dramatic, delves into the personal lives of his cast of characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief, revealing the pressures on both Yamamoto and his protege Yoshida, the strained relationship between the toji and his son (who is also part of the sake-making team) and the loneliness and exhaustion that are part of the sake-making process.

Shirai  explains that the film came about after he met Yoshida at an American promotional event and took him up on a casually offered invitation to visit the brewery. The visit turned into a two-and-a-half year project, with Shirai and producer Masako Tsumura traveling to Ishikawa to film three different sake-producing seasons as well as gather footage on the sake makers during the off season. Beautifully shot,  the film pays tribute to the rarely-seen work of these craftsmen, and their efforts to keep the artisanal sake-making tradition alive in the face of decreasing market share and increasing automation.

The bad news is that you will have to wait a bit to see the film; Shirai is in talks with distributors now and there is as yet no release date. You can keep abreast of new developments, though, through the film's web site or Facebook page.