Documentary to preserve Tokyo's famed Tsukiji before the fish market's relocation
Filming is now under way for the first documentary feature about one of the world's largest fish markets, Tsukiji in central Tokyo, as producers aim to preserve on screen what they see as the epitome of Japanese food culture before the market's relocation.
The film's 40-year-old planner-producer, Kazuha Okuda, says it will be significant not only as a record of the nearly 80-year-old market, earmarked for demolition after its relocation to the nearby Toyosu bayside area in 2016, but also to preserve the work of professional fish workers for future generations, both in Japan and abroad.
"The main characters of this film will be the intermediate wholesalers because we believe their mekiki expertise has cultural value," says Okuda, referring to their eye for good quality.
Japanese film powerhouse Shochiku plans to release the documentary, tentatively titled Tsukiji Wonderland, in 2016 in Japan after shooting at the market throughout a year, recording the best seasons for various kinds of seafood, such as sanma (Pacific saury) in autumn and fugu (blowfish) in winter.
Okuda, who works for an advertising agency, says she and her Shochiku staffer friend Maiko Teshima came up with the idea for the film as they fell under the market's spell after visiting it frequently for breakfast and to buy ingredients for parties. "We were surprised that there are no documentaries about Tsukiji," says Okuda. "We think the people who provide the backbone of washoku [Japanese cuisine] are here."
After talking with Naotaro Endo, who became the film's director, they asked Shochiku to produce the documentary and the movie company agreed, counting on the rising interest in Japanese food culture after the country's traditional cuisine was added to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013.
The Tokyo Fish Market Wholesalers' Co-operative Union is helping with the production, hoping the film will encourage people to eat more seafood out of concern about declining consumption in Japan, according to the union's spokesman, Yutaka Matsuzawa.
The fish market dates back to the days of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) who brought in fishermen from Osaka to Tokyo, then called Edo, to have them purvey seafood to Edo castle, allowing them to sell the rest in downtown Nihonbashi, according to the Tsukiji operator. The market in Nihonbashi was relocated to the current site in 1935 after the Great Kanto Earthquake and fire in 1923 devastated Tokyo's food markets.
After years of controversy, the Tsukiji market, which also deals in vegetables, is now set for another relocation about two kilometres southeast to Toyosu.
During 80 years of operations in Tsukiji, the market has gained acclaim as the "kitchen of Japan", providing more than 400 types of seafood from tiny sardines to 300kg tuna. The market handles about 1,800 tonnes of marine products, worth around 1.5 billion yen (HK$97.2 million), daily.
There are hundreds of small stands in a large, crowded hall, with intermediate wholesalers dealing in seafood acquired from wholesalers through auctions and negotiating transactions for customers, including sushi and tempura restaurants and fish shops. "It's important to consider the level of quality and prices that customers want," says shellfish wholesaler Takashi Ishibashi. He sometimes sells shellfish that are scarce in times of bad weather at regular prices to customers for reasons that can't be explained by economic principles.
The relationship between sellers and buyers is not only about making a profit, says Ishibashi, who has frequent long-time customers. "If you don't have that kind of bond, you can't do business here."
In an indication of strong public support for recording the fish market, more than 9 million yen was raised to supplement the budget for the film from a large number of people via the internet under a crowd-funding scheme.
Okuda says shooting sometimes starts from midnight prior to the market's busiest hours at around 8am and that the use of a tripod for the camera is prohibited as it will block the narrow, busy lanes. But the scenes are quite impressive, she says, with things moving in an organised way among the seeming chaos.
"Through this film, we want people to feel into the heart of washoku," she says.