Wine is about grapes, terroir and, to some extent, people. Sake is about people and, to a lesser extent, rice.
This is the point of Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Saké, a chronicle of a year in the lives of the men who work at Tedorigawa brewery in western Japan.
Shirai, a veteran camera operator making his first feature film, chose to focus on a family-owned brewery that was founded in 1870 and still does most of the work by hand. Images of that work are gorgeous, as when a thin cloud of brown koji, shaken from a hand-held cup, dissolves over a mat of white rice.
But the focus of the film is on the workers, who must spend six months—October through April—living at the brewery, not going home to see their families until summer. They rise for a communal breakfast at 4 am before starting intense manual labor at 5 am. The day is long. One man gets up in his bathrobe to check the fermenting sake in the middle of the night, adjusting the temperature by plunging a metal jug of hot water into the tank.
The best moments show the casual camaraderie of the crew. The young owner goes with some of his workers to a convenience store, where they leaf through magazines and discuss the kinds of girls they like; we learn that more than one wants a girl in a Santa costume. Two old men splash each other in a bathtub that would be small for one by American standards, yet they somehow make room for a third.
Shirai shows the challenges of the sake industry: It’s difficult to attract and keep workers for such a long winter, and the young owner must spend his summer wooing new customers. The former will always be tough, but the film might help with the latter.
The Birth of Saké made its US broadcast premier this autumn on PBS’s POV series, and is now available on iTunes.
W. Blake Gray lived in Tokyo for eight years before moving to San Francisco, where he became an award-winning wine and spirits journalist. He is the US Editor for Wine Searcher and runs the Gray Report blog. He still travels to Tokyo frequently to drink and eat and drink.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2017.
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