Erik Shirai’s “The Birth of Saké” – 2015 Tribeca Film Review

A startlingly intimate view of a little-known craft, “The Birth of Saké” details the arduous production of the Japanese beverage through the eyes of the men toiling away at a traditional brewery in the Ishikawa Prefecture.  Assuredly shot by Erik Shirai, a former cinematographer on Anthony Bourdain’s television series No Reservations, the making of saké amidst snow-caked branches and swirls of mist already would have been a worthy educational experience.  As it turned out, Shirai and his lean crew spent about two years filming several saké production cycles at the Tedorigawa Yoshida Saké Brewery, where the beverage-making process mightily clings to tradition stretching back to its founding in 1870.  Shirai takes his time showing intricate details, such as rice being shoveled, carried and polished by hand in sauna-like conditions, but also wastes no time in introducing early on the various external factors at play.

As such, “The Birth of Saké” offers a multilayered observation of an industry pushed by fickle changes in the market.  The number of sake breweries since the 1970’s has dropped by more than 75 percent, and the popularity of the beverage has waned, stepping aside for alternatives such as beer, wine, whiskey and shochu.  With an aging all-male crew at Tedorigawa already locked into a grueling six months on, six months off annual work schedule, personal tensions between colleagues rise to the surface beyond their daily 5 a.m. breakfasts and decisions to leave their families behind for half the year to live at the brewery.  Although its veritable head brewmaster Toji Yamamoto, 68 at the time of filming, vows to continue making saké until he is 200 years old, the sixth-generation heir apparent, Yasayuki “Yachan” Yoshida, 27, is being groomed to become the next head brewmaster and eventually president, ahead of Yamamoto’s own son Hideki, 41.  Despite his bold intent to carry on tradition, Yachan cannot hide his telling looks of ambivalence from the camera during tense work conversations, or downplay the cultural shock he faces when he spends his off-season trying to place his product in Tokyo stores, only to be told that at the end of the day, no one wants to learn about the history or ingredients because they only care about the taste.  (Such developments force Yachan, who speaks English, to promote the Tedorigawa product abroad.)  Indeed, change is inevitable and mortality constantly imminent, and for these reasons Shirai and his crew must be commended for exquisitely capturing a dying art form in “The Birth of Saké.”

“The Birth of Saké” screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where its director Erik Shirai won a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Documentary Director Competition.