There’s a lot more to saké—the legendary Japanese rice wine—than most drinkers realize. The best bottles embody a 2,000-year tradition that is painstaking, precise, incredibly labor-intensive and increasingly rare. Its creation is a cross between producing great art and raising “an unruly child.”
Japanese-American filmmaker Erik Shirai goes inside the Yoshida Brewery, a 144-year-old family-owned company in northern Japan, to capture the traditional saké-making process in The Birth of Saké, which earned him a Special Jury Mention for Best New Documentary Director at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. The film has its national broadcast premiere on the POV (Point of View) documentary series on PBS on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016 at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.) It is a co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).
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The mystical nature of the libation is captured in the film’s opening statement: “Saké making is a living thing. If you compare it to human beings it would be like raising a child.” And not just any child. The employees who bring Yoshida’s traditional saké to life pamper it from inception. Nothing is left to chance. There are no shortcuts. All told, Yoshida’s employees spend about half a year in nearly monastic seclusion creating their world-renowned product.
Inside the brewery, great clouds of welcoming steam rise above the white rice used to make the saké. As the rice cools it is treated with a special mold, koji-kin, which begins the two-stage fermentation process. Yoshida does not use the automated methods employed by many of its competitors. Like a fine musical instrument, its product is handmade.
Making saké the traditional way, says 68-year-old brewmaster Teruyuki Yamamoto, requires knowledge and intuition. These qualities are passed from generation to generation, from the older brewmaster to Yasuyuki Yoshida, the company’s 27-year-old sixth-generation heir. Shirai notes that while it is expected that the eldest son will take over the family brewery, it is rare for an heir to become an actual brewmaster: “Yasuyuki is unusual because he wants to do it.”
The film, two years in the making, is the first in-depth examination of the Yoshida operation and a rare look at the intense and relatively unknown (even within Japan) process of traditional saké making. Gaining access was not immediate or easy. After a long and exhaustive permissions process, the company’s owners allowed Shirai and producer Masako Tsumura to live at the brewery. Waking daily at 4:00 a.m., they were fully immersed and embedded with the workers. Shirai and Tsumura captured not only the subtle art of making saké, but the sacrifices made by Yoshida’s employees.
Being separated from loved ones is the hardest aspect of the process, though there are times of levity. But this is serious and exacting work. The slightest variation in the process, even a minor temperature shift, can negatively alter the final product.
The company is also under external pressure from a dwindling saké market. Consumption is down in Japan and worldwide, according to the film, while beer, whiskey and other types of alcoholic drinks have made significant inroads. This change is reflected in one crucial statistic: In the early 20th century there were 4,600 saké breweries in Japan. Now there are around 1,000.
After spending six months making saké, the young brewmaster Yasuyuki Yoshida spends the other half-year traveling the world to promote the fruits of his company’s labor. Younger drinkers often prefer newer types of saké, while traditional drinkers complain that new versions are “weak and indistinct.” The latter are highly pleased when Yoshida presents them with daiginyo, his brewery’s top-of-the line traditional saké.
Shirai says he wants his film to create “not the desire to drink saké as much as an appreciation of the people who make it. We are talking about a dying art that should be kept alive. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been well-placed to explore and share this ancient handmade technique, so rarely used now in our mechanized world.”
About the Filmmakers:
Erik Shirai, Director
Erik Shirai is a New York City filmmaker working around the world on renowned documentaries and television shows. He was a cinematographer for the Emmy® Award-winning Travel Channel series No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and recently completed Eye What You Eat, a new web series for the Scripps Networks. Shirai’s food films were also featured at a TED conference in New York in 2012. In 2008, Shirai launched his own production company, Cebu Osani Creative, as a foundation for his creative ideals and to create films that are compelling, original and visually cinematic. Shirai’s main goal is to produce one-of-a-kind content with integrity and respect.
Masako Tsumura, Producer
Masako Tsumura received a master’s degree in media studies from The New School and worked as a local producer for a variety of major Japanese television networks, including Fuji TV, TV Tokyo and NHK. She was the editor for Arakimentari (2004), a feature documentary about Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The film won the Best Editing Award at the Honolulu International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. In 2008, she completed Fire Under the Snow, her own feature documentary about Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned and tortured for 33 years under Chinese rule. The film was shown at dozens of festivals around the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival.
Director, Cinematographer: Erik Shirai
Producer: Masako Tsumura
Executive Producer: Mark Karpeles
Editors: Takeshi Fukunaga, Frederick Shanahan
Music Composer: Ken Kaizu
Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films. Since 1988, POV has been the home for the world’s boldest contemporary filmmakers, celebrating intriguing personal stories that spark conversation and inspire action. Always an innovator, POV discovers fresh new voices and creates interactive experiences that shine a light on social issues and elevate the art of storytelling. With our documentary broadcasts, original online programming and dynamic community engagement campaigns, we are committed to supporting films that capture the imagination and present diverse perspectives.
POV films have won 34 Emmy® Awards, 19 George Foster Peabody Awards, 12 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards®, the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award and the Prix Italia. The POV series has been honored with a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, three IDA Awards for Best Curated Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity. In 2013, American Documentary | POV was one of 13 nonprofit organizations around the world to win a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Learn more at www.pbs.org/pov.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding comes from Nancy Blachman and David desJardins, Bertha Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Ettinger Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.