Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video A conversation with filmmaker Erik Shirai, part of Filmmaking Forum: Scene Analysis.
- Erik, thank you so much for sharing this scene from this really beautiful film with us. Can you first just tell us a little bit about this documentary? - The Birth of Sake is a film about sort of these artisans who live in northern Japan who handcraft sake for six months out of the year, six to seven months out of the year. They live full time at the brewery, away from family and friends. For me, it's a film that's a tribute to these artisans and more specifically, a tribute to Japanese people and my Japanese culture. With many films that are being made these days about Japanese culture, it's usually from a Western perspective, and I thought it was really important that a Japanese person make a film about Japanese culture, or something that's a part of our culture.
And I think it gives a very different feel to the film. The whole idea of looking from the inside out rather from the outside in, and sort of sensationalizing or sort of exotifying something that's not familiar to them. - You know, I'm very curious about your relationship with the subjects. How did you gain their trust and how did they become comfortable with you being there? - I think half the challenge is making your subjects feel comfortable with you and the camera. And we were very fortunate that we were able to be embedded with them at the brewery, and I think there's a sort of trust that people form naturally.
I think, as subjects, when they see that you're not going back to a hotel every night, you're not eating at a restaurant after work every night. You're literally with them and sort of seeing firsthand what it feels like to live there full time. I think they appreciated that and I think they were willing to be open, in a way. And I think that's the biggest challenge, especially with Japanese people, I think it's a very big challenge to have them open up to you. We were just very lucky. I think it's very unheard of, I think, in the Japanese culture to be able to be embedded this way and have people open up the way they have.
And I hope that that comes across in the film and gives a sort of a different impression of Japanese people that I think a foreign filmmaker would have been a little bit more difficult to capture. - Okay, great, now let's actually dig into these scenes a little bit. Can you tell us about what's going on in this koji process? So, just describe it to us and tell us what you were trying to capture. - So the koji scene is something that they do throughout the entire day. Kind of a very key, and one of the most important processes in the sake making.
And so we had many different opportunities to film this scene and it's very strenuous, and it's really hot in the room, and so you're constantly sweating. It's very, very physical to work, you're constantly either kneading the rice or you're taking these big sacks and you're dumping it or you're separating the ones that's already kind of clumped up and stuff like that. So it was like, I did this personally. It's something that takes a lot of strength and effort. And so I wanted to film it in a way where you can kind of really feel that without me saying out in words, "It's very hot, it's very hard working, "it's very strenuous." Without me saying it in a VO, I want the viewer to feel it and kind of see it for themselves, and so that was how I constructed this scene.
I think sound design played a huge role in making people feel the textures of the room, the heat in the room. And also with the koji drinking scene, with the karaoke scene it's nice because it's a contrast, right? So in the beginning of the day when they first start waking up in the morning they have to do this thing and it's very serious. You get to sort of sense that people don't say anything to each other. People just work, put their head down and work. And then you get to the other part of the day, after they drink and after dinner which is sort of a completely different sort of vibe, you know.
People are laughing, people are talking to you. There's a sense of camaraderie, there's people joking around but they're still working, you know, and it's in fact sort of contrast between the two scenes which is very important in the film. And sort of emphasizes what they go through as a group. You have to work hard, but then on the same note you have to have some fun, you have to let off some steam, because you can't be serious all the time or you're gonna kill each other, you know? And so that's sorta that balance that the brewmaster creates within the working atmosphere.
I thought that was really, really beautiful, I thought, in some ways. - Can you also talk about the look, the visual palate that you created as well as the soundscape? - I think with documentaries I wanna feel, make people in the audience feel like I'm there looking from the inside out rather than from the outside in. And so I try to be as close as possible, not necessarily physically close to them, but just making the feeling that it's a very intimate process and it's a very intimate atmosphere.
So visually I wanted to make that come across. I also wanted to make sort of a stark contrast between time at the brewery, which is in the winter, and sort of time away from the brewery, which was sort of summertime and with family. So most of the scenes in the summertime away from the brewery with family is a little bit warmer and then time at the brewery, I don't think it necessarily makes it feel cold but I think it has a different look just to give it contrast, even though the people are the same. The soundscape, I think, is a little bit easier for me to articulate, mainly because I think sound is such a big thing with me.
I'll talk about it in two ways. I never wanted the music to be overbearing in the film because sake's such a simple and very clean drink and sort of the narrative is that way. That the sound and the music should feel the same way. It should feel very integrated into the story. And I was very, very lucky and fortunate that I was able to work with a Japanese composer, who I handpicked, who was right for this part. She lived in Japan so it was a very strenuous process working on Skype and working on different time zones, but I think it really needed sort of a Japanese aesthetic.
Someone who understood this world, this aesthetic. And that's how I came with the music. And I'm very proud of the music. Sound design, I got to work with a very, very talented group here in New York called 1,000 Birds and I don't think they, they even told me afterward they never work with anybody so particular. I'm very, very particular about the sound. I'm very, very particular about the textures that I wanna hear. And sometimes I can be very abstract. Some of those sounds you hear in that film has nothing to do with what the sound of the visuals would be.
So, you know, I would say, go out. I want the sound of, I don't know, a truck engine or something like that, which has nothing to do with the sound but that texture that it gives, gives that feeling to the scene. And I think they appreciated that, that abstractness, I think, and to be conceptual like that. And I think a lot of the film and a lot of the music is very conceptual. One think I'll say is that I wanted to make it feel very handmade feeling. Sake's made by your hands.
It's very handmade, kind of crafted. That's why we have this whole idea of making music with the clapping. (gentle clapping to music) You know, the clapping is actually a me and my music composer. He and I clapping together in front of the microphone. So it just gives that sort of human element. - And is there anything else you'd like to say about the style or the feeling of this film, Erik? - The other thing is that I just didn't wanna over saturate the film with a tremendous amount of veo, a tremendous amount of music, or anything like that.
I wanted people to really be there and walk away with their own impression. So having this sort of style and left for the viewer to sort of interpret, I think is the only way to kind of make people walk away with their own opinions. And I think when people watch the film they have an opinion about sake making, or they have an opinion about how they work, but everybody's different. But I don't think that anybody can walk away from the film denying feeling some sort of appreciation and sort of compassion for these workers, just as people.
And that was always sort of my goal was for people to see, viewers to see these type of people, these sort of artisans and who they are and their sort of character, I think is really important, than any sort of sake making process or any sort of informative thing. - Alright, thank you so much for sharing this with us, Erik.