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Tsukiji is a unique social enterprise driven not by profit but by pride and a near- obsessive devotion to quality.

A loving tribute to a storied seafood mecca

Oct 7, 2016 5:50 AM

TSUKIJI Wonderland - a feature-length documentary about the eponymous fish market in Tokyo - takes a unique look at a vital aspect of Japanese food culture. It will be food porn to some, a near-religious experience to others and to many more a necessary introduction to the mysteries of this storied seafood mecca.

The film, directed by Naotaro Endo, was intended as a loving behind-the-scenes tribute to the largest wholesale fish market in the world before its planned relocation next month. The move has now been put on hold until at least next year, following concerns about soil contamination at the new site, a former coal-to-gas plant.

Until then, Tsukiji, first built in 1935 and itself a replacement for a market that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1923, will continue to hold sway as a place that represents everything that is special about Japanese food culture.

A voiceover at the beginning provides an overview, explaining the significance - and mind-boggling size - of the market (about 400,000 square feet), where trade involving thousands of tonnes of fish, fruit and vegetable products, tens of thousands of people and billions of yen takes place daily.

There are interviews with an impressive roster of famous chefs, Japanese food critics and even a Harvard anthropologist, who all wax lyrical on the marvels of Tsukiji. But the film's primary focus is on the nakaoroshi - the approximately 900 intermediate wholesalers - who comprise the lifeblood of the market. The friendly interaction among themselves, their ability to select quality produce for their customers and the unstinting pride they take in their work are key factors to the overall food experience of consumers.

A defining moment occurs early on when one of the wholesalers says: "It's not about money, it's about a feeling." The film goes some way towards explaining to outsiders that Tsukiji is a unique social enterprise driven not by profit but by pride and a near-obsessive devotion to quality.

It's demanding work but it's also fun - this is a profession that has been passed down through the generations, making Tsukiji a community unlike any other.

Procedures in dedicated auction halls (salted and dried seafood, semi-processed seafood, shrimp, sea urchin, etc) including of course the "king" of Tsukiji (tuna) are described, and many nakaoroshi are interviewed. It's a male-dominated profession where passion and work ethic are shared by everyone involved. Their expertise is such that even the best chefs in the world trust in their ability to, for example, pick out the best eel in a basin of fifty. "To excel in their craft, they (chefs) expect to work with the best ingredients," explains an interviewee.

The film won't win any awards for artistic merit but then again it doesn't need to. Sushi and sashimi enthusiasts will find Tsukiji Wonderland a valuable resource and an inspiration on the journey to food heaven. In the words of Noma chef Rene Redzepi, an ardent admirer of Tsukiji and its denizens: "If you're an archaeologist you go to the pyramids; if you're a cook you need to visit Tsukiji fish market."

Rating: B-