What images does the name Tsukiji Market evoke? Likely, the giant bodies of fresh and frozen tuna caught in the early morning waters at auction. Or perhaps a fatty sliver of that tuna belly served over vinegared rice. For most, the fish is where the focus is at Tsukiji. But peel back the curtain into the Inner Market, and into the lives of the real protagonists – the merchants – and that’s where the real theater is. A few hours spent strolling through the narrow aisles of the historic cavernous warehouse and you’ll soon see that the fish is merely the supporting actor.
For over 80 years, the thousands of employees have given daily life and energy to Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market, as well as built Japan’s food culture. Through their extensive knowledge about every imaginable kind of fish there is, the intermediate wholesalers (called nakaoroshi) facilitate the transactions that result in the highest quality of fish landing on the tables of restaurants, homes, in supermarkets and school cafeterias across the world.
This is precisely what movie director Naotaro Endo saw for himself. Teaming up with a crew equally passionate and intrigued about Tsukiji as a bastion of food culture, Endo made a movie called “Tsukiji Wonderland” scheduled to be released October 1. I was invited to a preview of the film last week.
“When we first began to visit the market, we realized how little we knew about our own culture,” says producer Kazuha Okuda. “Over time, we fell in love with the culture of Tsukiji, the people who work there, and their skills,” she continues.
Filming of the 2 hour long documentary began in March 2014. Over 600 hours of footage was captured over a 16-month period – an intentional move to cover the four seasons. “The changing of the seasons is first reflected here at Tsukiji,” says a nakaoroshi, just one of the hundreds interviewed for the film.
Imagine being a fly on the wall and getting an unfiltered look into the daily interactions of nakaoroshi with their customers and amongst themselves. “I think the film is really remarkable in the way you have a gentle approach to people’s lives,” notes Theodore Bestor, a professor of anthropology and Japanese Studies at Harvard University, and author of “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World,” easily one of my favorite reads. Bestor is featured in the documentary.
A leading expert of Tsukiji, Bestor was intrigued early on by the market’s social interactions. After over a decade of research beginning in the 1990’s, Bestor’s “Tsukiji” was published in 2004. He is currently working on a new epilogue for the book that will discuss the plans for the market move (currently on hold) to a new site in Toyosu, and its likely consequences.
One of the many remarkable points the film makes is the symbiotic relationship between nakaoroshi and their customers – food professionals including restauranteurs. “Making a profit is not a source of pride,” says one wholesaler. “I pick the best fish for my customer. My customers determine my fate; if they want more, they’ll order more from me,” he continues.
Chefs equally depend on the knowledge of nakaoroshi when it comes to picking fish. “They nurture our craft,” says acclaimed sushi chef Takashi Saito of the eponymous Sushi Saito in Tokyo. For many chefs like Saito who have worked with a handful of trusted nakaoroshi for years (sometimes decades) to source fish, there is no compromise in quality. “Trust is what keeps Tsukiji going. Small compromises lead to bigger ones down the line,” says Saito.
Other notable chefs featured in the film include Jiro Ono of Sukiyabashi Jiro, Lionel Beccat of Esquisse, and René Redzepi of Noma.
The film highlights the wholesalers’ role as advisor on the seasonality of fish. “There are only 10 days in a year in which a type of fish tastes its best. It’s our duty to advise the customer,” says one nakaoroshi. As an example, sweetfish (called ayu) are a beloved summer treat, chargrilled with sea salt and a squeeze of citrus. Certain nakaoroshi know exactly what shape, size, and texture of ayu to look for, for the best taste. The ayu lifespan is only one year. “So, it’s like eating the four seasons they lived,” says one expert.
Japan’s seasonal foods are a pleasure and an essential element of traditional food culture. “Our origins are in our cuisine, so it’s our responsibility to keep it alive and pass it on,” says one nakaoroshi, expressing a sentiment echoed throughout the entire film.
I appreciated the film’s honest, objective lens through which the lives of the people who make Tsukiji what it is today are honored. “We tried to not make the film sentimental,” says producer Okuda. To see the workers in their natural element – daily work that’s equal parts grueling and rewarding – and being open, even vulnerable, when talking about their craft was an eye-opening glimpse into the lesser-known human side of the market.
These human interactions fuel market trade. As many as there are tough decisions and million yen transactions happening daily, there’s just as much fun and lightheartedness. Rivals play games of trickery at auction, and nakama (a term that means “mate”) constantly crack jokes. “When a son is born, he’s born into the market,” says one nakaoroshi.
How refreshing to see a balance of old-fashioned Japanese work ethic and a fun, stimulating workplace. “It’s a social environment,” says one nakaoroshi of the Tsukiji community. “It’s work, but it’s fun,” he says.
“Tsukiji Wonderland” will be shown at the Tokyo Togeki Theater starting October 1 and released nationwide October 15. It is also scheduled to be screened elsewhere in Asia, including China and HK.