Ever since he visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market for the first time in 2012, movie director Naotaro Endo has been intrigued by the place often called “the world’s largest fish market.”
“I was amazed by the spectacular taste of the fish that was recommended by an intermediate wholesaler, and that experience made me interested in Japan’s fish-eating culture as I became a frequent visitor,” Endo says.
Endo has turned his passion for the market into “Tsukiji Wonderland,” a documentary film that he has made with foreign audiences in mind.
“I hope this film will trigger people’s interest in Tsukiji and the essence of Japanese food culture,” he says, while also trusting it will serve as an opportunity for Japanese viewers “to think about passing on our food culture to future generations in the best possible way.”
“Tsukiji Wonderland” will be shown at a Tsukiji cinema on Oct. 1 and released nationwide on Oct. 15. It is also scheduled to be screened elsewhere in Asia, including Hong Kong in August and September, Thailand in September and Singapore in October.
Filming of the 110-minute documentary began in March 2014. For about 16 months, it goes behind the scenes at the market, records the distinct tenor of the four seasons and follows the daily routine of industrious professionals as they go about their work.
The Tsukiji fish market opened in its current location in 1935 after the market moved from the Nihonbashi area in the wake of the devastating 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.
Since then, the market dubbed “Japan’s lively kitchen” has been feeding people both at home and — in recent years — abroad, contributing to sustaining the quality of washoku Japanese cuisine, which has been designated by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.
According to the website of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, nearly 1,700 tons of fishery products were handled in the Tsukiji wholesale market per day in 2014, and some 480 kinds of fish are traded throughout the year. The wholesale market also sells other fresh goods such as vegetables, fruit, meat and flowers.
In November, the Tsukiji market will shift to Toyosu, about 2.3 kilometers to the southeast, and the documentary aims to capture the last images of Tsukiji before its relocation.
Earlier this year, a version of the film with English subtitles was screened at packed cinemas in the state of Washington during the Seattle International Film Festival and Endo sensed the strength of the film through the audience’s strong reaction.
“Images of food can be understood non-verbally across cultural boundaries and beyond language barriers,” Endo says. “Since food is related to principles of culture and forms part of our basic needs — food, clothing and shelter — I think washoku can be a very effective representation of Japanese culture overseas.”
The filming of the documentary was the first occasion in which cameras were allowed to follow people working at the fish market for such an extended period and in areas normally out of bounds to the general public.
Endo was particularly interested in featuring the professional lives of the intermediate wholesalers as opposed to focusing on chefs or restaurateurs. There was something appealing to him about their lively behavior, their ability to select quality fish, and the pride they put into their work.
Intermediate wholesalers buy tuna and other produce at auction and sell them to retailers, restaurants and other shops. They must be licensed professionals approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to conduct business at Tsukiji.
“They are not just getting paid for moving goods in the middle of the distribution system,” Endo says.
“Today’s food professionals have very demanding needs and produce from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south is delivered to Tsukiji thanks to the advanced distribution system,” Endo says. “But it is almost impossible to control the harvest of fish because this largely depends on conditions in the natural environment.”
The role of the intermediate wholesalers is to find a way to satisfy the needs of food professionals come what may by sourcing and recommending produce, he says.
“They have sustained Japan’s fish-eating culture since the Edo period, making Tsukiji the capital of fish-eating culture,” he says.
Shrines and monuments dedicated to fish and seafood at Tsukiji are another distinctive trait associated with Japanese food culture, Endo says.
Next to the market stands Namiyoke Shrine, where many pay their respects on arriving for work in the early hours.
“It’s a very beautiful, picturesque scene especially on cold winter mornings when people, whose breath is visible, bow in front of the shrine in the light of Japanese lanterns before they go to work. So I put a scene of that in the film,” he says.
There are various monuments dedicated to eggs, fish, sushi and other products at the shrine as a mark of respect and appreciation for the lives taken to become food. Elsewhere in the market, there is even an annual memorial service for blowfish, presided over by a Buddhist monk.
As he prepared for shooting the documentary and conducted research on Tsukiji, Endo came to know Theodore Bestor, a professor of anthropology and director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University, after reading his book “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.” He asked him to appear in the documentary.
Bestor received the Commissioner’s Award for the Promotion of Japanese Culture, from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs in 2013.
“In many cases, people cannot objectively see their own culture so seeing it through the eyes of foreigners is an effective way to do it,” Endo says. “(Bestor) is a leading expert on Tsukiji.”
“I think the film is really remarkable in the way you have a gentle approach to people of interest,” Bestor tells an audience during a lecture and dialogue session with the filmmakers at the International House of Japan.
While Bestor expects a number of things will change or be lost with the relocation, he believes core elements of Tsukiji culture, such as various kinds of kinship among professionals including a genealogical one and senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relationships, will remain as a microcosm of Japanese society at large.
“It’s not a sentimental goodbye to Tsukiji. It’s looking at people and their working lives. Their working lives continue whether, as you say, they are in this box or another box,” Bestor says.