The Birth of Saké

PBS Premiere: Sept. 5, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Erik Shirai discusses the making of the film, The Birth of Saké.

POV: Can you describe this film for someone who hasn't seen it?

Erik Shirai: The Birth of Saké is a tribute to my own people, my own culture. To these artisans who dedicate their lives, living in these sort of unusual circumstances of six to eight months together, making the people you work with every day your brother, your family that you depend upon. So my producer and I were actually embedded into the brewery. So we woke up every morning at four, we had breakfast with them, we had lunch with them, we had dinner with them. We drank with them every night. We got completely plastered with them every night. We sang karaoke every night.

POV: Was it difficult to gain trust of your subjects? Was there anything challenging in particular?

Erik Shirai: I think you know the thing about Japanese people is that they're sort of reserved people in general. I was very, very fortunate that the thing we were filming encompassed saké, which is this like magical potion to get people to loosen up. And I think that allowed us to be there full-time and live there and be with them all day long and sleep in the same place that they slept. I think also, I sort of gained some trust with them.

POV: What surprised you about the lives of the workers at the brewery or anything in the process of saké making?

Erik Shirai: It's this nurturing of people that's so valuable, which I think is very much similar to when you make films. You've got to be able to nurture your crew and the people who work for you. And I think with saké-making it's like it's very, very similar, where you have this person called the head brew master who oversees the whole process. His main responsibility is to make great saké and consistently great saké. But he needs to depend upon these workers. So he becomes sort of a surrogate father at the brewery. He needs to take care of the saké, but also need to take care of his workers. He's strict. He yells when he needs to yell. But at the end of every night, if he yelled at you, he'll come up to you and he says, you know, my bad. Let's have a drink together and forget about it and work hard to tomorrow. And I think it was very interesting to see that, because the head brew master always refers to saké-making as raising a finicky child, because you have to wake up in the middle of the night and take care of it, it's 24 hours, seven days a week process. So it's like you always have to look after it. And it goes the same way with taking care of his crew and his workers too.

POV: The characters that we follow at the brewery, we see both older and younger generations and their experiences. What would you say are the biggest differences between Toji and Yachan's generations?

Erik Shirai: Generally speaking, Toji-san and his generation is about sustaining tradition and keeping this sort of lineage that follows for so many years. And it's keeping that consistent. And then Yachan's more of a generation where he's open to trying new things and open to trying something that might make something better. And so it's interesting because you have two generations working together. You would naturally think that it would clash, but it's a very beautiful thing to see Yachan and the younger generation working together with Toji-san and the older generation. I think there's sort of a respect for each other. And I think Toji-san, the brew master, respects this new thing that you have to be able to adapt and adjust to the culture now, to the generations now, and you can't keep making the same type of saké because you need to encompass what's around you now. You have to try to get more people to find more interest. So I think Toji-san, the brew master is interested in the younger generation, is open to that. And vice versa, Yachan has so much respect for the tradition and so much respect for Toji-san and this long lineage of history and culture and tradition that's grown inside the brewery and especially in saké that he respects that and he knows that you can't just forget about it and just do the new thing. So it was like a great mixture of the two generations and the two types of perspectives, which is beautiful.

POV: Can you talk about the importance of maintaining cultural traditions, such as the preserving the process of saké-making?

Erik Shirai: It's so easy with so many things that are happening now with modernization. Let's make things that are easy, quick, simple and cheap. And I think there's this whole new thing, particularly in Japanese culture, that there are so many things that just take time and need to be handmade. And a person needs to make it, because there are so many changing variables and it's just something that we can't forget. A lot of the younger generation now are realizing this, because many things are dying out in Japan and all over the world. Particularly in Japan, just because it's such an old culture, I think you have to save this legacy in some way and this tradition so it can be carried on to the next generation. And that's with anything, but I think we're fortunate that we live in this modern world that we can make a film about it or utilize all this technology in a way where that could be preserved in a way and it can also be spread more around the world. You spread this tradition around, you get people interested in this thing that's happening, and I think more and more people will gravitate towards it and appreciate it I think.

POV: We were introduced to this concept of shokunin. Can you talk about this concept and explain how it manifests at the brewery?

Erik Shirai: Shokunin means an artist, or an artisan who dedicates their life to their craft. It's a dying art, and I don't think there's that many people who dedicate their whole life into their own craft. It's interesting because shokunin it a challenge that you face as a person that is translated into your own work. So it's this constant challenging of making things better which also means you have to constantly work on yourself and make yourself better. So it's a beautiful thing to see in Japan that there are still those people doing it. The problem lies in how they can kind of pass that on to the next generation. I think it's harder to get the younger generation to be interested in something like this, because it's more time-consuming.

POV: Were there any parallels that you saw between the craft of saké-making and the craft of filmmaking?

Erik Shirai: Filmmaking, for me, has always been about collaboration. I do a lot of different, creative things but filmmaking is something that I heavily depend on other people on. And I appreciate everybody's sort of input making this one thing. I may have an idea and it's in a ball and I basically pass this ball around the circle of my own people, my own crew. Everyone takes the ball and molds it in a different way and that ball comes back to me and it's a completely different thing. I love that sense of collaboration. What I learned the most while making the film was something from brew masters: it's not about telling people what to do, it's about being the leader that allows people to be inspired I think. If you're going to be a great director or a great filmmaker, or a great anything, you've got to inspire the people that you're working with. And for me it's what I try to do I guess.

POV: What were some of your challenges in making this film?

Erik Shirai: I have a responsibility to these characters and to the subject. And I would never make this film in this pace. It's a very slow moving film. But I knew that the whole process is slow. The whole process just moves on. They do the same thing almost every single day. I just felt like that needed to be somewhat consistent in the film. It was something that I always wanted to fight against. I was like, can people sit and watch something like this? And sometimes you just got to let the story speak for itself and you've got to let nature take it's own path.

POV: Towards the end of the film, there's this big moment where we find out that one of the workers, Youchi-san, passes away suddenly. Can you talk about how you find out about that and the decisions that went into incorporating that into the film?

Erik Shirai: It happened right before we went back for the third time. And we'd spent so much time with Yoichi-san outside of the brewery. We filmed with him outside at his hometown and stuff like that. So for us it was really a big hit. That's why I had no intention of putting it in the film, originally. And then when we went back, we started talking to some of the workers and then they just broke down. I think it dawned on us that it was a huge thing. You're asking people to make sacrifices, to not live with their families, to be away from family and friends. So now you put them in this situation and now they have adapted to this situation of making the people that they work around, their own family and friends. Now that's replaced it, you know. And so when someone passes away it's no different than your brother, or sister, your mother, father dying. That was the single reason why I thought it was needed in the film because it gave sort of context of what people are faced with when they're living this sort of lifestyle.
They all grieved in their own way, but then when we asked questions and they finally were able to release. They were able to let go of this thing that they were holding back and they didn't want to think about. And I think, for me, it just felt like I had some purpose. As filmmakers we had some purpose for them, not just making a story about their lives about the subject and this craft, but for them on a personal level. I felt like they were able to release something. I thought that was really important and much needed.

POV: What do you hope audiences get out of this film?

Erik Shirai: I'm a big believer that whatever you make with your hands, a part of your spirit or a part of your soul is put into it. And I feel like when that happens with saké making. All these people's energy, all these groups of people's energy are put into this one thing. And I think that you feel it in some way. I think when you drink their saké you can feel that spirit and the time that it took to make it. At the end of the day, I just want the audience to appreciate that these people exist, that these people dedicate their time and their lives into this one craft. And the next time you are in front of saké and sushi that maybe you take time to appreciate where it comes from.