By letting the movie write itself, director Erik Shirai gives us an unadulterated look at the world of traditional sake brewing.
“It’s good to enjoy a nice drink of sake as long as you can still work hard after, isn’t that right?”
“It’s also about how many drinks we can sneak in when you’re not looking!”
Two of the workers of the Tedorigawa sake brewery joke after a quick break as they spend the bitter north Japan winter months cooped up together, making sake. The camaraderie is the driving force of this documentary, which focuses on the current Toji (the head brewer), and his eventual successor, 28 year old Yachan. Yachan takes the work incredibly seriously, and has dual responsibilities as a brewer and as the head of marketing. While everyone else gets to rest during the summer months, he’s off promoting the brand.
Birth of Sake a pretty fascinating insight into the work that goes into it. The brewers are up at 5 in the morning, share a breakfast, and then work till about 7pm, taking only few breaks shifts. This happens between the months of October to April where they have to live together, work together and only really get a couple of days off a month. It’s a pretty tough regime to say the least and the movie does a lot to show how it affects the staff in their relationships with their families and themselves.
That said, sometimes you get the impression that the documentary doesn’t really know where it’s going or what point it’s trying to get across. Is it saying traditionally brewed sake is better? There’s a line near the beginning where the toji compares factory sake with theirs (factory sake doesn’t have the life that one brewed with human intuition does, he claims) but that’s about it. It never explores why these people go into so much trouble for sake. Yachan is almost enamoured with the process, and as the 6th generation heir, it’s logical. It’s the other, long-suffering members of staff trudge through it who are the most perplexing.
But I supposed that was never the intentions of the film in the first place. You’re not there to question why they do it, just enjoy and learn from it. Aided by non-intrusive excerpts explaining the various stages of brewing, the movie takes us through the entire 6 month ordeal, from the harvesting of rice, to the extraction of starch and the creation of alcohol from the sugars, the movie nicely weaves in these little contextual moments along with scenes from the workers’ lives. The strongest aspect of the film is its fly-on-the-wall approach. There’s never any forced drama, no sneaky editing to give it three acts.
It’s hard to know who the real star is; the cinematography makes a great case for itself as do the interactions between the workers. Watching Yachan and his colleagues shoot the shit and relax after a hard day’s work is strangely satisfying to see. It’s not unlike seeing a protagonist struggle against a threat in a film, only to come out on top, but on a generally smaller scale. There’s a great sense of friendship which becomes one of the biggest catalysts of both the sake creation and the viewer’s motivation to keep watching.
The Birth of Sake is shot in a very conventional style, keeping the camera and crew as unintrusive as possible. The soundtrack keeps it very low-key with traditional music, which complements its subject matter. Anything too flashy or over-produced would kill the atmosphere it’s trying hard to build. Erik Shirai knows a thing or two about shooting food and culture, having worked with Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations, and his knowledge shows. As it is, The Birth of Sake is nothing mind-blowing, but it doesn’t try to be. What it is is a beautifully-shot, simple story of sake and the men who dedicate their lives to it, and that’s really all we need.
Verdict: Simple in its methods but effective in its results, The Birth of Sake is solid in both its “how-its-made” and human drama elements.
The Asian Cinema Critic Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Entertainment value if you’re looking for something fast and exciting: 5/10
Likeable characters: 9/10
Twists: One dramatic turn, right at the end
Sake: I don’t know how they drink it at the end of the day. I’d be sick of it.
The Birth of Sake (2015)
Director: Erik Shirai