The men who labor tirelessly at the 144-year-old Tedorigawa Brewery in northern Japan get a portrait worthy of their devotion in “The Birth of Sake,” a richly immersive documentary that plays like an elegy for a time-honored but slowly vanishing way of life. Steeped in the rhythms of sake production at one of the few Nipponese breweries that still rely on human hands rather than machines, Erik Shirai’s directing debut favors process and routine over personal drama — a fitting enough strategy for a trade whose workers must effectively sacrifice all sense of self in order to create their world-class spirits. More sedate and less crowd-pleasing than “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” to name another classy tribute to an artisanal Japanese tradition, “Sake” should nevertheless go down smoothly with festivals and buyers following its Tribeca premiere.
Every October, a handful of men bid farewell to their family and friends and travel north to Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture, where they will spend a cold and lonely six months making sake at the Tedorigawa Brewery (also known as Yoshida Brewery). 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. We watch as huge quantities of rice are polished, rinsed, dried and steamed in heated rooms, where they’re treated with a special mold, koji-kin, that hastens the conversion of starch into sugar. From there, fermentation begins, producing first a yeast starter called shubo, and then a final mixture, moromi, which will be churned for 25 to 30 days, and from which the sake will eventually be pressed.
Shirai has noted that creating the perfect sake is like raising “a finicky child” (a comparison made explicit by the title), a task that requires daily and nightly attention from all involved. At no point, the documentary suggests, are the workers allowed to go on autopilot, as even the slightest variance — the wrong yeast type, or a shift in temperature — could throw off the desired balance of alcohol, fragrance and flavor in the final product. It’s for this reason that the brewers must effectively give up all other obligations for six months out of the year, retreating from their normal lives and entering a state of almost monk-like isolation from the outside world. And indeed, as filmed in moody shades of gray by Shirai (and accompanied by Ken Kaizu’s alternately meditative and metronomic synth score), the workers and the attention they pay to their craft take on the rigorous, exalted state of a monastic ritual.
A New York-based filmmaker with a number of food-centric credits on his resume (including the upcoming Web skein “Eye What You Eat” and the Anthony Bourdain series “No Reservations”), Shirai adopts a fly-on-the-wall filming approach that achieves a remarkable level of intimacy without ever sacrificing its reserve or restraint. While we catch occasional glimpses of these men (and they are all men) in their rare moments of downtime — whether they’re joking around and letting off (ahem) steam, eating, showering and sleeping together, celebrating the end of another long but successful brewing season — individual personality details are slow to emerge. We meet a few key figures, including 68-year-old Teruyuki Yamamoto, the toji, or head brewmaster, who is entering his 53rd year as a sake maker; and his 41-year-old son, Hideki, who has come to work at the brewery more out of financial necessity than passion. Hideki’s conflicted relationship with his father/boss is more hinted at than fully explored, though we can more or less glean what we need to know based on atmosphere alone.
Another important subject is 28-year-old Yasuyuki Yoshida (aka “Yachan”), the sixth-generation heir of Tedorigawa, who is preparing to take over for the elder Yamamoto one day as head brewmaster. He spends the other six months of the year traveling all over the world and promoting the Tedorigawa brand, bringing bottles of the finished sake — including daiginjo, the highest-quality liquor they produce — to be sampled by prospective buyers and customers. These interludes offer the viewer some welcome respite from the confines of the brewery, while also allowing the film to introduce the fact that breweries like Tedorigawa, which have been around for more than a century, look increasingly like anachronisms in contemporary Japanese culture. Only 1,000 or so breweries remain (compared with 4,600 in the early 20th century), and sake consumption in general has declined since the 1970s, falling behind preferred beverages like beer, wine, whiskey and soju.
At one point, Yoshida and others discuss the economic imperatives of their business and the qualitative compromises that have emerged as a result: Most breweries now rely 100% on machines and, in an effort to woo young drinkers, seek to produce a beverage that is smooth and easy to imbibe, skimping on the bolder, richer flavors that true sake lovers appreciate. And so “The Birth of Sake” becomes, in part, a film about the old vs. the new, tradition vs. innovation, amateurs vs. connoisseurs — in short, the sort of temperamental differences that permeate almost every commercial/artisanal enterprise. As the brewers once again head north for another season, their ranks somewhat thinner but their resolve as clear as ever, the film leaves us with an almost spiritual sense of recurrence, as well as an image of hard-working men clinging to hope and habit in the face of an uncertain future.