Sake production and dorayaki creation in film

2016 March 20
by Stacy Smith

WIT Life is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends along with her own observations.

This weekend I had the chance to see two fabulous Japanese films being screened here in the city, one documentary and one fiction.  The former is The Birth of Sake being shown at IFC, and the latter is Sweet Bean playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, both through this Thursday, March 24th.

The Birth of Sake, directed by Erik Shirai who was on hand for a post-screening Q&A, has already won awards at Tribeca and other notable film festivals.  I had heard of it in passing a few years back when the Kickstarter campaign raising money for the film took place, and the result is a sneak peek inside the normally cloistered world of sake creation.  The film takes an in-depth look at this process carried out by the hard working staff of the 144-year old Tedorigawa Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Their business is unique in that everything is done by hand, whereas the majority of modern Japanese breweries are automated.  Tedorigawa’s workers range in age from 20-70, and one requirement of their grueling job is that they must live at the brewery during the sake-producing six months from October until April (and according to Shirai, due to Tedorigawa’s new popularity thanks to his film, this season has been extended to May!).  They are willing to taking time away from their families and home lives to make this sacrifice, and many are veterans of their craft looking to cultivate the next generation of workers.  Not only will this film educate viewers about the sake-making process, but it offers a rare glimpse of the people behind it.  In particular, I loved the scenes humanizing the workers, like when they were splashing each other in the bath, teasing each other while shopping or breaking out into karaoke after a long day of work.

Director Naomi Kawase’s 2015 Sweet Bean (あん or an, sweet red bean paste) is a surprisingly tender film about the creation of an equally treasured aspect of Japanese food/drink culture, dorayaki (どら焼き or red bean pancake).  This dessert is ubiquitous in Japan, from pre-packaged types found in convenience stores to freshly made dorayaki at food stalls.

The film centers on a dorayaki proprietor whose stand has many regulars, but who just seems to be going through the motions.  His life changes when he is visited by an elderly woman asking if she can work there, in response to his help wanted ad.  He initially declines, but is eventually won over by her delicious homemade red bean paste, a filling he has never quite mastered.  She joins him and helps bring in many new customers, but things change when we learn more about this new employee.  This deceivingly simple story ends up packing a huge wallop, largely due to the legendary Kirin Kiki’s performance (her actual granddaughter, Kyara Uchida, plays the role of a young customer at the shop and her performance is also phenomenal).  I especially like when she describes how in order to properly make red bean paste, one must first thank the beans for making the journey from the fields and give them time to mix properly with the added sugar before proceeding (like when you introduce two people in お見合い, omiai or matchmaking).

For readers who want to learn more about sake/dorayaki production or just enjoy two quality films about Japan, I would highly recommend both The Birth of Sake and Sweet Bean!  Don’t blame me if afterward you are craving a dorayaki and some sake to wash it down…

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