Film Explores The Art and Secrets of Saké Tradition

The history of Japanese saké is a long and rich one that most drinkers outside Japan know little about. In his upcoming documentary, The Birth of Saké, Japanese-American filmmaker Erik Shirai takes viewers inside northern Japan’s 144-year-old family-owned Yoshida Brewery for an up-close exploration of the traditional saké-making process.  The film, for which the young director earned a Special Jury Mention for Best New Documentary Director at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, will make its national broadcast debut on PBS on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016 at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.)  The film will be shown on PBS’ POV (Point of View) documentary series, as a co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).

Tedorigawa Brewery workers Image: Erik Shirai
Tedorigawa Brewery workers
Image: Erik Shirai

The film’s opening statement tells viewers what kind of experience awaits them, when it declares: “Saké making is a living thing. If you compare it to human beings it would be like raising a child.”  Two years in the making, Shirai’s documentary offers the first glimpse of the Yoshida operation as well as granting a rare look at what it means to make traditional saké. The Yoshida employees responsible for creating the legendary rice wine leave nothing to chance in meticulous pursuit of their world-renowned product, spending about half a year in nearly monastic seclusion. The fruit of their labor is handmade, with no automated production methods to be found.

Yamamoto Toji checking Koji rice Image: Erik Shirai
Yamamoto Toji checking Koji rice
Image: Erik Shirai

In order for the filmmakers to truly know the rigorous demands of the lives of brewery workers as well as traditional saké-making, the company’s owners actually allowed Shirai and producer Masako Tsumura to live at the brewery, embedded among its staff. Waking at 4:00 a.m. each day afforded Shirai and Tsumura a truly immersive experience that captured not only the subtle art of making saké, but the significant sacrifices made by Yoshida’s employees.

Shirai says he wants his film to create “not the desire to drink saké, as much as an appreciation of the people who make it. We are talking about a dying art that should be kept alive. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been well-placed to explore and share this ancient handmade technique, so rarely used now in our mechanized world.”


About the Filmmakers:

Director/Cinematographer Erik Shirai Image: Masako Tsumura
Director/Cinematographer Erik Shirai
Image: Masako Tsumura

Erik Shirai, Director
Erik Shirai is a New York City filmmaker working around the world on renowned documentaries and television shows. He was a cinematographer for the Emmy® Award-winning Travel Channel series No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and recently completed Eye What You Eat, a new web series for the Scripps Networks. Shirai’s food films were also featured at a TED conference in New York in 2012. In 2008, Shirai launched his own production company, Cebu Osani Creative, as a foundation for his creative ideals and to create films that are compelling, original and visually cinematic. Shirai’s main goal is to produce one-of-a-kind content with integrity and respect.

Masako Tsumura, Producer
Masako Tsumura received a master’s degree in media studies from The New School and worked as a local producer for a variety of major Japanese television networks, including Fuji TV, TV Tokyo and NHK. She was the editor for Arakimentari (2004), a feature documentary about Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The film won the Best Editing Award at the Honolulu International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. In 2008, she completed Fire Under the Snow, her own feature documentary about Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned and tortured for 33 years under Chinese rule. The film was shown at dozens of festivals around the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival.

About POV

Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films. Since 1988, POV has been the home for the world’s boldest contemporary filmmakers, celebrating intriguing personal stories that spark conversation and inspire action. Always an innovator, POV discovers fresh new voices and creates interactive experiences that shine a light on social issues and elevate the art of storytelling. With our documentary broadcasts, original online programming and dynamic community engagement campaigns, we are committed to supporting films that capture the imagination and present diverse perspectives.

POV films have won 34 Emmy® Awards, 19 George Foster Peabody Awards, 12 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards®, the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award and the Prix Italia. The POV series has been honored with a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, three IDA Awards for Best Curated Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity. In 2013, American Documentary | POV was one of 13 nonprofit organizations around the world to win a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Learn more at

Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding comes from Nancy Blachman and David desJardins, Bertha Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Ettinger Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.



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