The first documentary film about the famed Tsukiji fish market was released in Tokyo on Saturday, depicting the everyday lives of unsung seafood professionals, amidst an imbroglio over the site’s planned relocation.

“Tsukiji Wonderland” has been released at a time when the wholesale fish market is drawing all the more attention after newly elected Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike recently postponed the relocation of the aging market in central Tokyo, citing safety concerns about soil contamination at the new site.

The 110-minute film, which is not about the disputed relocation but spotlights Japan’s food culture and hundreds of intermediate wholesalers in the market who devote their lives to procuring the finest, most desirable seafood, was directed by 38-year-old Naotaro Endo who first visited the market in 2012.

The fishmongers at Tsukiji, Endo says, are a breed unto themselves, highly specialized in certain fish and shellfish species. Seafood is selected according to the seasons and depending on particular cooking methods for their meticulous customers.

“I wanted to portray their professional expertise accumulated over a long period of time,” Endo says.

The film, Endo’s debut feature, preserves on screen the fish market that has been operating for about 80 years at the current location. Tsukiji, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, offered more than 400 types of seafood, with a total market value of about ¥1.6 billion (around $15.8 million) a day in 2014.

With an almost religious fervor, some of the country’s top chefs come to the market, where intermediate wholesalers bid for products for their customers, like restaurants and retailers, in competitive auctions, which start before dawn. The purchased fish are prepared for sale at their shops within the marketplace.

Over the years, Tsukiji has been dubbed the “kitchen of Japan,” playing an unrivalled role in washoku Japanese cuisine, which has been designated by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.

Endo was first impressed by the vibrancy of Tsukiji, which led him to want to film the people there. But the idea did not immediately materialize as he first had to obtain permission to film at the restricted marketplace, which is supervised by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

Endo was aiming for something unprecedented — shooting scenes at Tsukiji throughout a year — to showcase the market’s season specialties, such as saury in autumn and blowfish in winter.

Teaming up with co-producers Maiko Teshima and Kazuha Okuda, themselves avid fans of Tsukiji, Endo spent over a year planning and negotiating for the film.

Shooting began in March 2014 and lasted 16 months, recording 602 hours of scenes and interviewing over 150 people, mainly intermediate wholesalers, who Endo believes are the lifeblood of Tsukiji.

“It was physically demanding,” he says, referring to the shooting that often started before daybreak and walking with cameras around the 230,000-square meter market.

The documentary crew were not allowed to set their cameras on tripods and could not remain stationary while filming, since doing so would impede the flow of traffic through the narrow lanes connecting hundreds of congested stalls. They also had to be mindful of the motorized three-wheeled carts speeding around the marketplace.

“We had to always be aware of the flow so as to become a part of the market,” Endo says, adding it was especially difficult to capture scenes at the right place and right time as many things in the market occur simultaneously.

Interviews with multi-Michelin star chefs Jiro Ono of sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo’s Ginza and Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma are among those featured in the film. Some prominent chefs the documentary crew happened upon in the market readily agreed to appear in the film.

The market, which also has a fruit and vegetable section, was previously set to relocate in November to a new larger site in Toyosu, formerly occupied by a gas plant, where contaminated soil has been found.

However, the relocation has been postponed, pending a reexamination of the site’s safety.

Endo says he believes a market changes in accordance with the needs of consumers.

“I’m hoping the film will offer an opportunity to think again about our country’s food culture, how to nurture and convey it to future generations,” he says, expressing concerns over a fast food culture that continues to discourage home cooking.

“Before, richness might have meant dining at a fancy restaurant. But I think it’s starting to change in this convenient society … to mean having decent home-made meals, by boiling rice, grilling fish and making miso soup, which used to be normal in the past,” he says. “I would be delighted if viewers are encouraged by this film to think about the true meaning of richness.”

Movie production company Shochiku Co. will distribute the film throughout Japan from Oct. 15 after Saturday’s pre-release in Tokyo. The film has already been released in Hong Kong and Thailand and will be available in Singapore and Taiwan later this month.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.