Cameraman-turned-filmmaker Erik Shirai doesn’t answer a major question that viewers of his impressionistic slice of work-life doc The Birth of Saké are bound to wonder: Why does the Tedorigawa Brewery’s arduous, old-fashioned fermentation process make its sake superior?
Shirai also doesn’t explain why hard work and blue-collar sincerity should make us root for Tedorigawa, one of the last Japanese sake companies whose products are made almost entirely by hand. Instead, he indulges his subjects’ lack of introspection and focuses on the ephemeral beauty of the brewery’s centuries-old sake-making method.
Shirai emphasizes the Tedorigawa men’s discipline in several scenes where humble workers sift, boil and clean rice in gauzy, naturally lit extreme close-ups accompanied by a monotonous ambient score. Natural sounds speak louder than dialogue, particularly the hiss of boiling water, the clack of nesting wooden molds, and the thrum of a carefully regulated thermostat. Even a sequence following Chi-chan, master brewer Teruyuki Yamamoto’s employee/childhood friend, emphasizes experiential rather than personal details. Chi-chan briefly talks about his late wife after feeding his fish, smoking a cigarette, and splashing around with his work buddies in a public bathhouse.
Shirai’s focus on the nobility of unreflective salt-of-the-earth types gets explained, somewhat, when brewery spokesman and heir Ya-chan Yoshida inadvertently gives voice to his colleagues’ discomfort with questioning their own emotions. When a friend/colleague’s untimely passing is mentioned, he cooly deflects attention from the subject by remarking that “once [sake-making] starts…you can’t just suddenly stop.” Still, Yoshida’s comment doesn’t explain why “human intuition,” as Yamamoto puts it, makes this sake taste better, nor does it make Shirai’s soft, process-oriented approach more potent.
The Birth of Saké
Directed by Erik Shirai
The Film Sales Company
Opens March 18, IFC Center