“The Birth of Saké”

Paleo Retiree writes:


This film (which recently appeared on Netflix Instant) isn’t an informative, clear, traditional documentary. It isn’t an expressive cine-essay, like “Sans Soleil” or “Be Here to Love Me,” either. Instead, it’s an impressionistic, reverential, dark thing — almost a mood piece — about several seasons at a brewery in the northern part of Japan where sake is made in the old way, with lots of hands-on crafting and fussing. Basically, you’re hanging out at a brewery with a small sake-making crew while the filmmaking team does what, back in film school, we used to call “pot-shooting” — recording a lot of near-random this and that.

The sake makers (they’re all guys) wear white uniforms; they polish the rice; they rush around attending to emergencies; they haul bags of rice and pieces of equipment from room to room … It turns out that traditional sake-making is a 24 hour a day job for six months, followed by six months off. So we also hang with the guys as they bathe, share meals, and horse around together during down hours.

There are some attempts to isolate a few story lines and highlight some of the individuals: a few scenes with guys back at their houses, with their families, during the off months, as well as some talks with the brewery’s old brewmaster about his sake-making philosophy, and some time with the young man who’s going to inherit the brewery. He hopes to be able to keep the business going in the face of a lot of industrial-style competition and a decreasing interest in sake on the part of Japanese consumers. But, seriously: the film is mainly a lot of moody shots and sounds. Most of the time I had zero idea why I was being shown what I was being shown.

The film is also oppressively, almost bizarrely, solemn. It’s obviously meant as a tribute to artisanal-style craftsmanship (especially of a meticulous, ultra-Japanesey sort), and — speaking as a locavore/Paleo-eating/farmers-market-shopping kinda guy, as well as a sake-lover — I can totally get on board with that. But what this intention translates into in practice is endless turgid, hyper-closeup shots of guys staring at measuring instruments, examining rice, and sniffing mash. (What are they looking for? We’re never told. We’re watching them do things — but what? And why?) The tone is in fact so heavy that it’s almost Bresson-like in its gloomy, austere religiosity. Let’s just say that, for reasons I certainly couldn’t figure out, the filmmakers go very light on the joy of creativity, as well as on the sensuality of pleasure.

Sourpuss verdict: Childish in its ideas about how to be a documentary (it’s one big montage, basically); uninformative about its overt topic; but impressively super-sophisticated and up-to-date where technical filmmaking stuff goes. Lordy, the lustrous imagery! The ripe and precise sounds!

My wife wanted to stop watching early on but I got perversely fascinated by the film. I fought sleep and annoyance, and we took three evenings to make it through the movie. But I also found myself feeling curious, and wondering if this is the new style, one we’ll be seeing more and more of as youngsters who grew up on digital media (and who seem to have zero background in the traditional arts) continue transforming movies into something that suits them.

So, a few notes about what this new-media, inch-deep, movie-esque thing that suits the youngsters seems to consist of:

  • There’s what strikes me as an almost hysterical devotion to effects — effects, effects, effects of all kinds: backlighting, “searching” camerawork, image and sound processing, restless focus-changes, arrestingly subtle acoustic effects, showstoppingly narrow focal planes, editing that dazzles then brings you up short, etc.
  • There are endless numbers of “design”-style affectations. There can apparently be no such thing as too much “design.” In the case of “The Birth of Saké,” the design elements include teeny-tiny typefaces; lots of Japanese-influenced compositions; over-striking changes of pace; and one of the most annoying music scores I’ve ever been subjected to. At one point a single, eerily-swirling note was sustained for — I counted — over 40 seconds. No denying that all of this has its effect. But dare I suggest that, in a traditional sense, there’s no meaning or content to any of it? It seems to my mind like striking-ness and arresting-ness pursued purely for their own sakes.
  • A near-complete disinterest in information, and no curiosity whatsoever about how the world works. I’m nearly as in the dark about how sake-rice is raised and selected, how sake itself gets brewed, and how sake is marketed and enjoyed now as I was before watching the movie. Instead you’re given a subject and an evocative rush of images, sounds and effects on that theme.
  • Everything in the movie is overripe, overdone and overrich, at least to my raised-on-old-media tastes. Even the quietness and respect in the film’s tone struck me as being as obvious and souped-up as the tones are in a lot of TV ads. And how about the film’s title? How about that unnecessary accent aigu over the “e” in “saké.” Overesonant much?
  • Finally: over and over again, cut-cut-cut. I watch something like this and can’t help wondering: Are we really getting that much more out of 20 twitchy, hyper-striking shots of guys raking through a mash than we might get out of one clear, informative image? But I’m an old fart who misses the point, and my question is never raised. Of course we’re going to be given a waterfall-like rush of images — except, of course, when we’re going to be given one weirdly-prolonged one. That’s just what a new-media thing is.

It’s always about the effects, in other words. Making effects (unnecessarily) hypervivid and orchestrating them in (pointlessly) striking ways is what the new filmmaking is about, and “an impressionistic, overstriking orchestration of hypervivid effects” is what the new-media movie is apparently turning into. Hey, it’s the young director’s first full-length movie. Previously he’d worked as a cinematographer on food TV shows. I suspect that “a cascading mashup of TV ad/reality-show/music-video-style effects that lasts for 90 minutes” is what his idea of a movie is, and maybe should be.


  • This intelligent positive appreciation of the movie calls it, aptly, “richly immersive.”
  • I wrote a long lament about what movies are turning into in the digital age back here. These days I’m less depressed about these developments than I used to be — but I’m also much less interested in movies than I once was. Coincidence?
  • I just ordered up a copy of this book about sake. If I’m going to drink and enjoy the stuff, then I want to know something about it too.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Food and health, Movies, The Good Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “The Birth of Saké”

  1. jjbees says:

    Welcome to prole-watch.

    You can pick up some prole-chow at chipotle, sit on your ikea prole-fa (portmanteau of prole and sofa, I invented it), and make witty sarcastic comments amongst your friends about everything.

    Welcome to the proligentsia.

    Another angle is the style of “contemporary conformism”, a good description given here:

    I bet a lot of people felt like true art connoisseurs after watching The Birth of Saké. They were sold an experience, normally only reserved for the urban intellectual, the right to consider themselves discriminating and tasteful, no matter how illusionary the truth is.


  2. Fenster says:

    My instincts are the opposite of Japanese. This feels to me like a lot more ritual than reward.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Noma Two Ways | Uncouth Reflections

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