When the Japanese restaurant you’re dining at lists Tsukiji Market as its source for fish, you know that you’re in for a treat. For more than 80 years, the venerable fish market in Tokyo has served as the culinary heart of Japan, supporting the country’s food industry and feeding horde after horde of sushi-obsessed tourists. As the largest and busiest in the world, it also supplies fish and other seafood to restaurants across the globe. Which is why it was just a matter of time before someone decided to immortalise the beloved emporium in a documentary film.
The idea for ‘Tsukiji Wonderland’ came about in the spring of 2014, when rumours of the market’s closure first sprouted. Naotaro Endo, the Japan-based filmmaker behind works like Guzen No Tsuzuki (Audience Award, 27th PIA International Film Festival) then visited the market over the course of 16 months to document its hustle and bustle as a parting gift, marking the first time a film crew was allowed to shoot inside for such a long period.
In 110 minutes, Endo attempts to portray Tsukiji’s true essence and explore the ‘blood’ that keeps the market alive: the wholesalers and restaurant owners. He follows these people inside the exclusive inner market, interviewing men (and one woman) in rubber boots as they participate in highly competitive auctions. This is where Tokyo’s sushi chefs try to procure the day’s best catch – and it is a marvel to watch. Come the wee hours of the morning (auctions start at 5.30am), an unknown bidder would have walked away with a tuna weighing more than 400kg. It cost him 36.5 million yen.
Watching them on screen, it is clear that the Tsukiji brand is unparalleled in scale and in its system, operating at an efficiency that would impress a Mumbai dabbawala. Business is built on mutual trust and a long-standing relationship between dealers and restaurateurs, some of them generations old.
Still, the issue of Tsukiji’s closure loomed over like a shadow for years. Last year, it was decided that the world-famous destination will relocate to Toyosu, a man-made island down east, due to concerns about earthquake resistance, fire hazards, and sanitation. If you’re not from the Land of the Rising Sun, making a pilgrimage there before it closes can take a toll on your wallet, which makes ‘Tsukiji Wonderland’ all the more important.
More than just glistening close-ups of top-quality seafood, the film is a valuable documentation of life in the great market, a record of the people behind that toro platter you ate yesterday, and a swan song fit for the grand institution that is Tsukiji.
Find out more about ‘Tsukiji Wonderland’ here.