×

Film Review: ‘The Birth of Sake’

A richly immersive documentary about one of the few remaining Japanese breweries where sake is made the old-fashioned way.

With:
Teruyuki “Toji” Yamamoto, Yasuyuki Yoshida, Chikahiro Yamazaki, Hideki Yamamoto. (Japanese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3903322/

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.

Film Review: ‘The Birth of Sake’

Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., April 20, 2015. (In Tribeca Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 94 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) (Sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Masako Tsumura.

Crew: Directed by Erik Shirai. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Shirai; editors, Takeshi Fukunaga, Frederick Shanahan; music, Ken Kaizu; sound, Andrew Tracy; sound designers, Calvin Pia, Tracy; animation and visual effects, Aaron Kemnitzer; graphic design, Studio Newwork.

With: Teruyuki “Toji” Yamamoto, Yasuyuki Yoshida, Chikahiro Yamazaki, Hideki Yamamoto. (Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

  • Harry Styles to Play Prince Eric

    Harry Styles in Talks to Play Prince Eric in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Harry Styles is going under the sea. The former One Direction frontman is in early negotiations to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • Stuber Movie

    Disney Left With a Slate of Film Flops After Fox Deal

    Is Disney having buyer’s remorse? The studio would be forgiven if it were having some regrets after absorbing 20th Century Fox, the company that once generated big box office with the likes of “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After “Dark Phoenix” bombed earlier this summer, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s action comedy “Stuber” [...]

  • Taika Waititi Returning to Direct 'Thor

    Taika Waititi to Direct Marvel's 'Thor 4'

    Taika Waititi is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmaker will write and direct the sequel to his 2017 blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok.” Waititi’s take on the fourth “Thor” movie puts Warner Bros.’ long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely. However, the studio hopes that “Akira” can get resume production with Waititi at the helm once [...]

  • Akira

    'Akira' Production Put on Hold by Warner Bros.

    Warner Bros. has put its long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely, sources tell Variety. Sources indicate that after a brief delay, the studio has pulled the plug on production indefinitely for the classic anime adaptation, which was set to begin later this fall. “Thor: Ragnarok” helmer Taika Waititi was on board to direct, and the [...]

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content