By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent
Many of us may have had a chance to visit a winery, but a visit to a sake’ brewery is a rare opportunity in the United States. I’ve personally had a chance to visit one such brewery in Napa County, but it has closed and even those at the brewery acknowledged their sake’ was often criticized by people from Japan as not authentic.
Japanese American filmmaker Erik Shirai feels the void with The Birth of Sake’ which makes its television debut Labor Day on PBS’ POV .
Shirai manages to finesse a rare invitation to take his cameras behind the scenes to the 144-year-old family owned Yoshida Brewery. It’s one of the last few breweries left which still produces its sake’ handmade.
The six month process is so intense workers literally live at the brewery the entire production season. Shirai and producer Masako Tsumura were invited to live with them. The two take full advantage of this opportunity and give us an intimate glimpse at not only the sake-making process, but its workers who sacrifice so much of their lives to be part of this Japanese tradition.
“We woke up with them every morning at 4:30am, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner with them and even got drunk with them every night,” said Shirai to AsAmNews. “This enabled us to get very close with everyone and it allowed us to capture the very intimate lifestyle that these workers live for 6-7 months every year. By the end of the filming, we became a part of their small family.
“From the beginning, my intentions were to give tribute to Japanese artisans who strive to keep traditions alive. As a Japanese American, I also wanted to share the story of my own people, Japanese people and culture, especially of those who live in the rural areas.”
Interestingly, Shirai said he did not have a particular fascination with sake’ and admits he stumbled on the opportunity by accident to produce this film. He was holding a fundraising event for one of his other films where he met the young heir of the Yachan brewery.
“At the event he casually mentioned that I should come visit his brewery the next time I was in Japan. I don’t think he was serious at all at the time so he was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at his brewery asking permission to film there.”
Much of the film focuses on the relationship between brewmaster Teruyuki Yamamoto and his workers. Six months in closed quarters in a rural area away from most of their homes can be grueling. On top of that Yachan is located in a cold and icy region of Northern Japan in the country’s Ishikawa Prefecture.
While the surroundings might be considered unappealing to some accustomed to warmer climates, it provides for many cinematic opportunities. One of the film’s opening shots depicts great clouds of steam rising above the white rice, providing a stark contrast to the snow and icy terrain outside the brewery
Traditional Japanese music sets the tone of the film, which might be too slow and melodic for some, but is reverent to the age old process.
“In the film, we make a reference to how the 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 workers, 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 like the surrogate 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,” said Shirai.
Sake’ brewing is going through a transformation and a crisis. In the early 20th century there were 4,600 saké breweries in Japan. Now there are around 1,000. Attracting workers willing to devote six months of their lives each year to sake’ is quite difficult. The workers tend to be on the older and Shirai calls sake-making a “dying art.”
Yet he is optimistic the tradition can continue. The 68-year-old brewmaster is expected to be replaced by 27-year-old Yasuyuki Yoshida, the company’s sixth generation heir. Yoshida helps produce the sake’ and then the other six months of the year, goes out to promote it around the world.
“I think the more popular sake’ gets in the western world, it will allow for better appreciation and hopefully reinvigorate more younger people to continue in this long tradition,” said Shirai.
“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 is 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. But thankfully, there has been progression made because this past year, there were two women who started working at the brewery. So its nice that they try to keep the traditional ways but also update it for the modern times.”
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