In a world where most mass produced goods are heavily automated, a small group of manual laborers must brave unusual working conditions to preserve a 2000-year-old tradition that we have come to know as saké.
The Birth of Saké is a cinematic documentary that reveals the story of passionate saké-makers and what it takes to make world-class saké at Yoshida Brewery, a 144-year-old family-owned small brewery in northern Japan. About a dozen employees leave their families from October to April for the plant, where they live together while following the directions of Teruyuki Yamamoto, the 68-year-old toji, or head brewmaster. They eat, sleep, sometimes even bathe together, rising at 4:30 a.m. for a workday that often runs past 8 p.m.
The workers at Yoshida Brewery are an eclectic cast of characters, ranging from 20 to 70 years old. As a vital part of this cast that must live and work for a six-month period through the brutal winter, charismatic veteran brewmaster Yamamoto and the brewery’s sixth-generation heir, Yasuyuki Yoshida (27), are keepers of this tradition, and are the main characters who bring the narrative forward. As artisans who must dedicate their whole lives to the making of this world-class saké, their private sacrifices are often sizable and unseen.
Currently, stiff competition and the eventual retirement of experienced workers intensify the pressure of preserving quality of taste, tradition and brand reputation for Yoshida Brewery. Surrounded by 1,000 competitors, Yoshida must surface as a worthy contender in a market overrun by choices. While the narrative follows the brewery’s energy and ambition to survive, the characters remain central to the storytelling.
Director Erik Shirai, who was a cinematographer for The Travel Channel’s ‘No Reservations’ with Anthony Bourdain, and who recently completed ‘Eye What you Eat’ a new web series for the Scripps Network, began work on the film in August of 2012, when he and producer Masako Tsumura visited the brewery for the first time.
After a long and exhaustive permission process, Tedorigawa’s owners allowed full access to Erik and Masako to film at the brewery. They returned in January 2013 to live amongst the workers at the brewery and capture the intense and relatively unknown process (even within in Japan), of traditional saké making.
Living at the brewery allowed them a rare window into a cast of vibrant and dynamic characters and fueled their interest in painting a deeper portrait of the people behind the product.
Granted more or less full access to the facilities, Shirai walks us methodically through every step of the complex, time-consuming sake-brewing process, breaking it down with elegant onscreen descriptions and deft, observational footage.
Words sourced: Variety.com, NY times, birthofsake.com