Shooting is underway on a major documentary film about one of the world’s largest fish markets, Tsukiji in central Tokyo, before the facility closes and reopens at a new location.
At 80 years old, the ramshackle but buzzing complex is earmarked for demolition after trading moves to a site in the adjacent Toyosu neighborhood in 2016.
The filmmakers aim to preserve on screen what they see as the epitome of Japanese food culture. Kazuha Okuda, a producer, said this first ever documentary about the market will not only record it as it was, but will help future generations worldwide see how those in the seafood industry go about their business.
“The main characters of this film will be the intermediate wholesalers because we believe their ‘mekiki’ (eye for quality) expertise has cultural value,” said Okuda, 40.
Shochiku Co. 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 saury in autumn and blowfish in winter.
The sight of so much seafood and the busy atmosphere of sellers, buyers and three-wheeled carts motoring around narrow lanes is a stark comparison with the nearby luxury shopping district of Ginza and surrounding skyscrapers.
Okuda, who works for an advertising agency, said she and her friend Maiko Teshima, an employee of Shochiku, came up with the idea of the film as they frequented the market for breakfast and to buy ingredients for parties at home. They fell under its spell.
“We were surprised that there are no documentary films about Tsukiji to date,” Okuda said. “We think the people who provide the backbone of ‘washoku’ (Japanese cuisine) are to be found here.”
After talking with Naotaro Endo, who became the film’s director, they asked Shochiku to produce the documentary.
The company agreed, betting that interest is rising worldwide in Japan’s food culture after its traditional cuisine was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. Screenings of the film have already been planned at foreign film festivals.
The Tokyo Fish Market Wholesalers’ Cooperative Union is cooperating in the production. Given declining consumption of seafood in Japan, the film might encourage people to eat more, said the union’s spokesman, Yutaka Matsuzawa.
The fish market dates back to the days of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), who brought fishermen from Osaka to Tokyo, then called Edo, to supply seafood to Edo castle. He allowed them to sell the rest in downtown Nihonbashi, according to the Tsukiji market operator.
The market in Nihonbashi was relocated to the current site in 1935 after the Great Kanto Earthquake and fire in 1923 devastated Tokyo and its market places.
The Tsukiji market, which also deals in vegetables, is now set to be relocated about 2 kilometers southeast, in Toyosu, where its premises will double in size to 40 hectares.
Over the course of many decades, the market has gained acclaim as the “kitchen of Japan,” providing more than 400 different types of seafood — from tiny sardines to 300-kilogram tuna. The market handles about 1,800 tons of marine products, worth around ¥1.5 billion, every day.
A large market hall contains hundreds of small stands where intermediate wholesalers sell seafood acquired from wholesalers through auctions and negotiate directly with customers, including sushi and tempura restaurants and fish shops.
While awaiting customers they prepare the seafood, such as using a small piece of wire to paralyze a fish’s nerves so it won’t move around and will stay fresh. Some of the dealers represent family businesses dating back several generations.
Takashi Ishibashi, an intermediate wholesaler specializing in shellfish, said mekiki expertise is not only about judging quality.
“It’s important to consider the level of quality and prices that customers want,” he said.
He sometimes sells shellfish that are scarce during stormy weather at regular prices without regard for economic principles. The relationship between sellers and buyers is not only about making a profit, said Ishibashi, who has many longtime customers.
“If you don’t have that kind of bond, you can’t do business here,” he said.
There is strong public interest in having the market’s activities preserved for posterity. An online crowdfunding campaign raised more than ¥9 million to supplement the film’s budget in a matter of three months.
The many contributors will receive benefits ranging from free movie tickets to a listing in the credits.
Okuda said shooting sometimes begins at midnight, prior to the market’s busiest hours at around 8 a.m. But it is not easy for the film crew: cameras can’t be placed on tripods, as they would block the busy, narrow lanes.
But the scenes are memorable, she added, with things moving in an organized fashion despite what appears to be a chaotic environment.
“Through this film, we want people to feel the heart of washoku,” she said.