'The Birth of Sake': Tribeca Review

The Birth of Sake Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The Birth of Sake Still - H 2015

A lushly shot look at an endangered tradition

Employees at a 144-year-old brewery make sake the old-fashioned way.

A stately tribute to doing things the old-fashioned way, The Birth of Sake takes us behind the scenes at one of the few breweries still making the famous Japanese spirit by hand instead of with industrial machines. The crew is small at the 144-year-old Yoshida brewery, where the Tedorigawa brand is produced; while first-time helmer Erik Shirai spends time with some of them, his main interest is in their hard-won brewing instincts and their intentions to keep things going this way for another generation. Though not as seductive as some foodie docs, the film will play well with enthusiasts and Nipponophiles at fests.

The two crucial players here are Teruyuki Yamamoto, the head brewmaster, who has been making sake for over half a century, and the earnest Yasuyuki Yoshida, a 27-year-old who will soon inherit the family business. They embody the changes faced by this industry, in which few young people will make the sacrifices required to learn skills retirement-aged brewers possess. Handmade sake is a round-the-clock enterprise, after all, and employees must live together for six months at a time like workers on a cargo ship.

We observe one year's cycle of production — rising with the men at 4 a.m., sharing meals, returning to work after dinner even on nights when a bit too much sake was shared. Occasionally Shirai gives glimpses of the off-season, when men return to families they don't know nearly as well as their coworkers; for Yoshida, work continues even during this period, as he must travel to bars in Tokyo and convince buyers of his brand's virtues.

Making good use of his camera-department experience on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and elsewhere, Shirai seeks out the visual appeal of both the brewery's operation — the huge mounds of dense rice being prodded by hand, the resulting distillates bubbling and sloshing — and of the northern Japanese terrain where the business makes its home. Lovely black-and-white interludes accompany titles explaining one stage or another of the rice-to-booze process, and even the typography echoes the film's interest in fine-tuning.

Sake is much less popular in Japan than it once was, we learn, and the artisanal stuff is at a disadvantage. As we watch Yamamoto oversee the year's production, though — sampling as he goes, making tiny adjustments in a process he compares to raising a child — the film suggests that this is different enough from the industrially made sake that connoisseurs will keep it alive. If, that is, enough young people see the nobility in sacrificing half their lives to produce booze with personality.

Production company: Cebu Osani Creative

Director-Director of photography: Erik Shirai

Producer: Masako Tsumura

Editors: Takeshi Fukunaga, Frederick Shanahan

Music: Ken Kaizu

Sales: Andrew Herwitz, Jason Ishikawa, The Film Sales Company


No rating, 94 minutes