The Birth of Saké

Directed by Erik Shirai

Through the unrelenting winter in the north of Japan, a small group of workers must brave unusual working conditions to bring to life a 2,000-year-old tradition known as sake. A cinematic documentary, The Birth of Sake is a visually immersive experience of an almost-secret world in which large sacrifices must be made for the survival of a time-honored brew.


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  • ★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd


    The power of cinema: I'm not a foodie, not a drinker, couldn't care less about this subject matter...and yet was fascinated. That's mostly thanks to the film's aggressively process-oriented approach—virtually any endeavor depicted in such minute detail would be compelling to me, I suspect—but first-time director Erik Shirai also just has a terrific eye, both for on-the-fly imagery and for studied interstitial compositions à la Ozu. Was initially concerned when workers started to be individualized, as that seemed more conventional, less Geyrhalter-ish; once it became clear that traditional saké-making is seasonal, however, and that everyone lives communally in the brewery for seven months annually, those relationships essentially become part of the machinery. (Shirai also deserves credit for not heavily foreshadowing one sad event, instead choosing to provide a poignant montage after the fact.) At this writing, you can stream The Birth of Saké on Netflix—give it ten minutes and see if you can turn it off. I fully expected to and didn't.

  • ★★★★ review by James Reynov on Letterboxd

    I’m going to miss the hell out of Japan, and it’s truly because of the people. I’ve met so many generous, disciplined, wise, humble, kind, and patient people here, I’ve really learned so much from them and feel like I’ve grown from my interactions here, many of which I’ll never forget. So it’s just fitting for my last night to watch this doc of my favorite alcoholic beverage made by people I respect a lot. It’s a wonderfully immersive doc and you find yourself getting so much pleasure from the workers interactions, and how insane the whole sake brewing process is, there’s a lot to take out of this doc and enjoy.

  • ★★★★ review by MrSneakyMan on Letterboxd

    A documentary that details one of the few remaining breweries in Japan that brews sake in the traditional, labor-intensive process. The workers must work round the clock for 6 months. Their days start at 5am and can go late into the night. They must live on-site in a communal setting. Away from families and loved ones, they form a strong sense of kinship with each other.

    Erik Shirai's lens focuses on the picturesque qualities of the brewing process. His editing is confidant and controlled. The result is a captivating, beautiful and touching film.

  • ★★★½ review by Rick D on Letterboxd

    An interesting look at how sake is made in a traditional manner at Tedorigawa Yoshida Brewery.

    I really got a first hand look at the work that goes into making sake in the traditional way and it was stunning.

    A wonderful documentary.

  • ★★★★ review by 0ona on Letterboxd

    Although the title could be misconstrued (this film isn't about the actual birth of Sake from the beginning of its origins and creation) this beautifully shot documentary is about the traditional Sake Brewing Methods at a particular Brewery, the Tedorigawa Brewery, in Northern Japan. The style and cinematography used in this documentary adds a mystical component to the film, from the traditional instrumental music underscoring moments in the film to the slow-motion steam-filled rice-cooking shots and the focus on the snow falling outside; from the Kanji titles and the rigid, austere lives the workers must lead for 6 months a year, 6 months where they cannot see their families but must live together communally while caring for, and attending to, the sake-making process as if they are looking after a helpless, newborn baby. It is a demanding job that captures the Japanese aesthetic, highlighting the importance of tradition, dedication and devotion, all while providing a kinship with your fellow workers and a pride in what you are making, a process that has been perfected and mastered after hundreds of years. But it also reveals the sacrifice and the difficulties encountered in the modern era where machines have taken over hand-made processes at other breweries and where the tastes and interests of the public have reduced the demand for Sake.

    This documentary provides us with a glimpse into another way of life, one that the Tedorigawa brewery is trying to preserve, while maintaining its relevance, and marketing itself to a growing world, all with a quiet look at the lives of the men who have devoted themselves to their craft.

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