‘The Birth of Saké’, discovering an ancient tradition

With sweat and passion, a little group of workers carries on an handcrafted and millenary tradition, very distant from the hectic rhythms and from the mass production, which is typical of the modern industry.

Their hard work and their life are the crux of “The Birth of Sakè”, a documentary film directed by Erik Shirai that in 2016 won Polly Krakora Award for the Artistry in Film at EFF in the Nation’s Capital and the Jurado Juvanil Award at Cinema Planeta. Both festivals are members of the Green Film Network.

For six months, from October to April, the workers at Yoshida Brewery’s stay away from their families and their houses to dedicate themselves to the full-time annual production of sakè, the typical Japanese alcoholic drink, obtained by the fermentation of the rice with water and koji.

As a Japanese-American, I wanted to share the story of my own people and my culture”, the director Erik Shirai, whom we talked about the film with, told us. “I see so many films made about Japan and Japanese culture through the eyes of foreigners and I felt that it was important that this film be made with a Japanese perspective. This film is a tribute to all Japanese artisans who dedicate themselves to their craft”.

For all Japanese people, sakè is a cultural element with a fundamental importance, but since ‘70s its national consumption has considerably decreased, as much as its craft production. The workers of the brewery, which is one of the most ancient and prestigious in Japan, work with devotion and diligence in order to make their product as well as they can, following the traditional technique and respecting raw materials and natural resources.

It’s a job which requires a big responsibility, almost as big as raising a child. It cannot be learned on books, but rather handed down from one generation to another.

The documentary film follows all the phases of the birth of sakè, emphasizing the care, the dexterity and the experience the workers do their jobs with. At the same time, the movie shows their protagonists’ daily routine, in both their private and professional life.

These men are from twenty to seventy years old, and they all share the strain and the difficulties of the life far from home, the relax moments and the most difficult ones, when solidarity and team spirit come to light.

I think filmmakers and cinema allow viewers to witness a world unknown to them”, continues the director. “It is a breeding ground to spread knowledge and opinions”.

In this sense, “The Birth of Sakè” shows the poetic and unknown world of people who dedicate a big part of their life and energies to the production of sakè with a simple and direct style that gives the sense of reality. “I always believe that the style should reflect the narrative, not vice versa”, explains Erik Shirai. “I believe that real documentary films have an obligation to share the truth of your subjects in the best possible way. And a good documentary film should have the style support of the narrative”.

The reality of the workers at Yoshida Brewery’s is not easy to understand: it’s made of resignations and hard work, but also history and wisdom, humanity and love. In our era of automatic machines, these are values we too often lose sight of; but yet, considering the results, they can make the difference and compensate both the strain and the sacrifices.