The Birth of Saké: A Q&A With Erik Shirai

birth-of-sake-posterFrom October to April of every year, the brewers at Yoshida Brewery in northern Japan make saké around the clock—living at the brewery, eating, drinking and working together in tight quarters to make the 144-year-old family recipe.

This traditional way of making Japan’s most iconic fermented beverage is on the decline as the industry shrinks (in the early 20th century, there were 4,600 breweries—now there are only 1,000) and larger breweries industrialize the process. To preserve the culture, The Birth of Saké sheds light on the world of small-batch, traditional saké-making, tracing the mechanical aspects of the process while also providing an intimate look at the lifestyle of its workers.

Unlike many other modern drinks documentaries, the story unfolds at a meditative pace, allowing the characters—a crew that ranges from ages 20 to 70—to let their culture speak for itself. It’s a beautiful homage to the people and the history of the drink.

The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, but it was released on iTunes last month, so we caught up with director Erik Shirai (known for his camerawork on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations) to find out more about how the film came together and what he’s learned about saké culture.

Imbibe: What inspired you to make a film about saké?
Erik Shirai: For my first feature documentary, I wanted to make something that would be a tribute to my own culture and people. I met sixth-generation brewery heir Yasuyuki Yoshida when he was pouring saké at a fundraising event in New York, and we started talking about how the drink is made. He suggested I come out to Japan and visit—a casual thing that Japanese people do and nobody really takes it seriously—so I took him up on the offer and went out to see the brewery. They weren’t in production at the time, but he showed us where the workers would be staying for those six or seven months, and it was one 10-foot by 12-foot room that all these people would share. As Americans, we thought it was crazy. So that’s really where it started.

How long were you guys part of that process, and how long did it take to shoot everything?
We did three different production seasons over three years of saké-making. We spent 3-4 weeks there every time we visited, and spent a summer with them during the off-season.

How did you convince them to let you follow them around so intensely?
As with most traditional Japanese things, there was a lot of hesitation to have their day-to-day lives showcased, but we were very fortunate because Yasuyuki has a more progressive mindset than older generations. He saw this as a great opportunity to put the legacy of the family brewery out there and to get more people in the international community to see the lifestyle and the culture.

Was everyone welcoming to you from that point on? 
Once we initially started filming, people were hesitant and reserved, but since we were embedded there at the brewery full time—we woke up with them every morning and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together, then got drunk with them at night and sang karaoke—people eventually opened up and saw that we’re dedicated and willing to sit with them during the whole process. We’re not going home or staying at a hotel and coming back. I think they appreciated that.

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A frame from The Birth of Sake shows workers kneading rice in the snow. Photo by Yoshida Yasuyuki.

The film unfolds slowly. Why did you choose that pace instead of the popular quick cuts and continuous-narration style?
If you were to give saké a personality, it’s a very subtle thing. It’s a beverage that supports the meal and that’s not overly sensationalized. It’s also a slow process; not something that happens in a few hours or days, but a grueling process that requires a lot of patience and care. So I thought the film had to reflect that personality. If it were a completely different topic or subject matter, I would probably have filmed it differently and structured the story differently, but I felt like this had to reflect the characters, the subject and the overall personality of what they were doing.

What did you learn about saké-making that you didn’t know going into this project?
We make a reference to how brewmasters refer to saké-making as dealing with a finicky child. That’s why they work long hours and live at the brewery during production, because there’s 24/7 care that has to be put into it, just like with a kid. Also, the brewmaster is responsible for making the great saké, but he strongly depends on his workers as well. He can’t be a dictator and tell people what to do all the time, because once you lose control over your own crew, the saké will suffer. So there’s this thing where the workers are taking care of the saké, but the brewmaster is taking care of the workers, so he’s kind of like the father. At the end of every night, he wants everyone to have a drink and cool off. I love how he’s always looking out for his people.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the brewers spending time with their real families during the off months, contrasted by their lives at the brewery. It allows viewers to see how this brewery is like a second home to the brewers.
Exactly. There’s a very dramatic scene towards the end of the film, which really puts into context the brotherhood that exists at the brewery. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen the film yet, but the essence is thus: when you put people in a situation where they are forced to work six or seven months away from their families every year, the people they work with become their family and when things happen to them, it effects them on a very deep and personal level.

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One of the opening scenes of the film shows sake workers on the way to the brewery. Photo courtesy of Erik Shirai.

What other thoughts or feelings do you hope people walk away with after seeing the film?
I always want people to see saké in a new way next time they go to a sushi restaurant, but I also want people to see there’s a face behind what they’re consuming. To know what it takes to make something, especially in this age where everything seems to be quickly made and consumed. There are still things that take time and actual people using their hands to make them. If audiences can appreciate that, not just in sake making but in other forms, there’s more of a connection. You feel connected to the people and what you’re consuming, and that’s the most important thing to me.

You mentioned earlier that not many people in Japan even know how saké is made, so it feels like you’re also helping preserve that culture and heritage.
Yeah, especially since saké consumption is in decline in Japan. It’s a very “following” culture, meaning things that get popular within Japan are usually things that are popular outside of Japan first. So that’s the biggest challenge with this film; I can show it in all these festivals all over the world, but within Japan I can’t even get someone to theatrically release it. There’s no general interest. So if more people in the international community respond to it, maybe people in Japan will be more willing to think about saké in a different way.

Any parting thoughts?
I get asked all the time why there aren’t any women in the brewery. There’s a shrine they bow down to in the brewery that’s the so-called saké god, which is actually a female. So traditionally women aren’t allowed in the brewery because they’ll make the female saké god jealous. It’s also sort of a hard lifestyle. But this past year, there were two women who started working in the brewery, so they are very progressive about keeping traditional lines but also updating it to modern times.