Review: In ‘The Birth of Sake,’ a Brew Made With Pride and Lots of Patience


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Sake makers sifting rice in the documentary “The Birth of Sake” directed by Erik Shirai.

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Erik Shirai/Film Sales Company

Chronicling a season at a small family-owned brewery, Erik Shirai’s “The Birth of Sake” is an engrossing introduction to the traditional cultivation of the rice-based alcohol that is part of Japan’s cultural heritage. But the film’s true focus is an endangered way of life.

The Yoshida Brewery, in Ishikawa Prefecture, has been making sake for more than 140 years, using artisanal means — that is, touch, taste, sight and smell, instead of just machines — to steam, sift and ferment the rice into a premium sake brand, Tedorigawa. About a dozen employees leave their families from October to April for the plant, where they live together while following the directions of Teruyuki Yamamoto, the 68-year-old toji, or head brewmaster. They eat, sleep, sometimes even bathe together, rising at 4:30 a.m. for a workday that often runs past 8 p.m.

Yachan Yoshida, 28, is being groomed by his father, the company’s president, to be the sixth generation of his family to lead the brewery. Eager for the challenge — “The brewery will always be where I feel most at peace,” he says — he knows its survival is not assured. Young workers willing to put up with a life this demanding and immersive are hard to come by; as important, the sake market in Japan is shrinking, and the mass brands that do well often lack the nuance and subtle textures of the artisanal brews.

Mr. Shirai nicely shuffles in the back stories of several workers, and his shots of sky, sea and early morning landscapes could fit amid Hokusai woodcuts. At 94 minutes, the film’s pacing drags at times. But as Mr. Yamamoto might say, it takes what it takes. You can’t rush the process.

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