NETFLIX — If you knew just how much love, tradition, and sacrifice went into a product, would you enjoy it more? Does the story behind how something gets made impact the way you see that product? Would you be a more loyal to it? Such are the questions I was asking myself while I watched BIRTH OF SAKE. I imagine that if I knew that in order to make my favorite carbonated beverage (Big Red, for those wondering), a team of men ranging from early 20’s to late 60’s had to live away from their families for six months every year, and literally live only for producing the highest quality bottles of it, I would treat each sip like a gift. Such is the case with saké.
When my wife first suggested we check this film out I thought, “Cool!” I love documentaries–especially about niche subjects I know little about. What I was expecting was to learn a little something new about the process of making saké. What I wasn’t expecting was to feel so much for the men that literally give up half of their lives toward perfecting it. To toil away in a factory for six months doing hard labor, observing ancient traditions in saké brewing. One might think it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to give up so much for something so seemingly insignificant like a bottle of rice wine… but it’s what these men live for.
BIRTH OF SAKE does a wonderful job of breaking down the entire saké brewing process–from grain rice to wine. Each step is explained through text on screen, followed by shots of the men hard at work executing them. This alone would have been worth watching, if you’re into learning how things come to be, but what makes this film particularly special is that, in between the lessons are deeply personal back stories about the men behind the brew.
One man is the son of the Brewmaster, who struggles to leave his son every winter, and feels neglected and distant from his father while they work at the brewery. Another man is pushing 70, has no family at home, and thus can’t wait to get back to the brewery with his new family. Perhaps the most interesting story, however, is that of the young man, Yachan, being trained by Teruyuki, the Toji (head brewmaster), to take over someday. The two have a very close relationship, closer than they do with their own father and son (respectively). Yachan is the son of the president of the company, and yet wishes to become a Toji himself, rather than follow his father. Much of the film is spent with Teruyuki imparting important leadership lessons to Yachan. It also shows Yachan, during the time he’s not at the brewery, selling his product, and discussing his philosophy on what makes a good saké.
To hear the general ambivalence toward saké from various restauranteurs is hard to swallow, especially after having seen what it takes to brew it. However, it’s also explained that what sets this brewery apart form others is that they continue to hold true to the ancient ways of production rather than resort to using machines–which many other breweries do.
BIRTH OF SAKE reminded me a lot of JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI in that it’s about men who are what they do. Unlike most people I know who “work to live” these men “live to work.” It’s their passion, and doing good work fills them with a tremendous amount of pride that is worth the sacrifice. Whether you personally subscribe to that philosophy yourself with your day job or not, I will always find that level of commitment and passion inspiring. Definitely give this is a shot if such things inspire you, too!