The steam-laden fermentation of sake, a rice-based alcohol native to Japan, requires relentless shoveling, raking, watching, kneading and sniffing. For six months each year migrant workers leave their homes and families behind to live at Japanese breweries, working day and night to produce the delicately balanced rice wine for world-wide consumption. While the export of sake to the U.S has doubled in the past ten years and chefs like Wylie Dufresne of wd-50, who famously paired the beverage with foie gras in 2011, have gained sake a place at the fine dining table, the meticulous, sweat-drenched process behind the ancient liquid remains little understood by the public.
Now Erik Shirai, a filmmaker whose work has appeared on National Geographic, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and the TEDx conference in NYC, hopes to bring the history and culture of the labor-intensive process to light. Along with producer, Makoto Sasa, Shirai launched a Kickstarter campaign to fully fund their film in progress, The Birth of Sake, which explores sake production at one of the most renowned Japanese breweries.
Unlike wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar inherent to the grapes, sake is produced by a beer brewing-like process, in which the sugar needed to produce alcohol is first converted from the starch in the rice.
Shirai’s project began when he and his team were invited by the Yoshida family to the Tedorigawa brewery in Ishikawa prefecture in northern Japan in August 2012. While visiting the brewery Shirai and team worked side-by side with workers ranging in age from 20 to 70 and were “immediately intrigued by the complex process required to produce sake, a seemingly simple clear liquid,” reads the Kickstarter page.
After their initial visit, Tedorigawa agreed to let them film the laborious production of Diagingo, the highest grade sake. At Tedorigawa, the film team rose with the workers every morning at 4am–immersing themselves in the culture, they “felt the warm dedication and spirit of the workers who wake up every morning seven days a week, work all day together, eat all three meals together and then drink together each night.”
The Jiro Dreams of Sushi-esque intimate glimpse at the 1,500 year-old sake making tradition follows two main characters, Yamamoto Toji, the head brewer, and Yasuyuki Yoshida, the sixth generation brewery president. Their profound relationship drives the narrative of the film. Shirai believes there exists an inherent kinship between the art of sake making and the film-making process and he wants to share this story to grow appreciation for the beverage and increase knowledge of this iconic facet of Japanese culture.
In order to complete the project, the team needs to film additional scenes in Japan, including: shooting in Toji-san’s hometown of Noto where he farms rice during the off season, filming the sake workers in the off season outside of the brewery, and capturing the perspective of Toji-san’s wife. In order to bring the narrative of the film full circle, the team also wants to shoot the workers returning to the brewery at the start of the next sake season in late October.
You can learn more about the project or donate to the Kickstarter campaign here.