Erik Shirai’s The Birth of Sake is a warm love letter to the national liquor of Japan and the people who make it happen. Shirai is perhaps best known for his work on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Layover–a pedigree that invites high expectations for a film about liquor.
The documentary follows the workers at Tedorigawa Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture in northern Japan. It details their grueling schedule, which requires them to live, work, and eat together at the brewery six months of every year during the brewing season–an uncanny dedication to the process that Tedorigawa takes great pride in.
The film beautifully details the whole sake brewing process. We’re treated to long, silent shots of hands sifting through the rice, washing the grains, and pressing the mash. We learn about milling, washing, steaming, and fermenting the rice. Temperature control is vital–the slightest changes in temperature can significantly alter the character of the sake. Every brewery has a signature character they strive for, and so replicating the taste is a challenge year after year. It’s a tough process, requiring careful attention 24 hours a day, and the workers wake up at 5am and work well through 11pm. Such commitment makes banking hours look juvenile in comparison.
The film has an undertone of melancholy throughout. I felt like I was watching the end of something, a certain way of life. I really get the feeling that Shirai wanted to record this before it’s too late. The popularity of beer and wine in Japan has led to a significant dip in the demand for sake among younger generations. With this, coupled with the rapid aging of the Japanese population, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll continue to see the beautiful work of places like Tedorigawa much longer.
Regardless, Shirai does a fine job of giving us a peek into the extraordinarily difficult and ancient process–as well as the people who enable it. While Sake may be facing tough times in Japan, its future has never looked brighter in the West. There is hope, after all.
The Birth of Sake. Directed by Erik Shirai. First released April 2016. Running time 1hr 33min.