At a certain point in Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Sake, it becomes apparent that the film isn’t just about the art of making of sake.
This is common in movies that are about making something—food, art, movies, games, etc.—and this move away from the mere object to a larger existential concern is generally welcome. We can learn a lot from a craft that becomes a way of life (e.g., Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction), or even commiserate with people who undertake quixotic efforts out of passion (e.g., Persistence of Vision).
So while The Birth of Sake is about the Yoshida Shuzo brewery, it’s also about the way we build secondary families from our friends.
The Birth of Sake
Director: Erik Shirai
Release Date: TBD
A second family is essential for the brewers at Yoshida Shuzo. (The brewery has produced Tedorigawa label sake since 1870.) They spend an entire season at the brewery tending to the sake rice, waiting for the precise moment of fermentation, stirring vats or letting them sit still and bubble. They eat meals together, they sleep in on-site quarters, they party together, and they toil. All the while, the camera lovingly considers the winter outside and the activity indoors, making the rice and steam both a counterpoint and a complement to the falling snow. It’s not food porn, it’s food poetry.
The general sentiment from the brewmasters and Shirai is that the brewing process is almost like raising a child. (Hence The Birth of Sake rather than The Making of Sake.) When they’re away from their baby, we see the various men in isolation and get to understand the kind of necessary camaraderie that builds through this rearing of sake. At one point, some of the older brewmasters bathe together. In another context, these men ought to be retired, but at Yoshida Shuzo, they’re like brothers playing in the tub.
There’s a generational divide in the sake brewing process, which reflects a change in Japanese drinking habits just as much as the way that most traditions fade generation by generation. The primary seller for Tedorigawa is much younger than the veteran brewers, and he spends his off-season traveling the world to promote the brand. Sake is his life, but he’s had to feel his way around the changing market for it. He shares some wine with his fellow brewmasters, and the differences in their palettes are apparent with the first swirl and sniff.
The other young brewmasters, when off work, hang out with the other young brewmasters, and they talk about dating women, though maybe “girls” given the teenage tenor of their conversation. The cycle of making sake would get in the way of those plans. It’s the difference between a job and a calling, which leaves the future of the craft in question.
Shirai captures both the beauty and the melancholy of the sake brewing process, and it’s fascinating that The Birth of Sake never feels forced in its various observations. That’s probably because the brewmasters have such fondness for what they create, and for the family that’s created because of it.