Oh Precious Sushi
David Gelb's documentary takes us to Tokyo's most famous, most expensive sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, a snug twelve-seat counter-only eatery in the basement of a Tokyo office building. The purveyor is 85 year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, considered by sushi cognoscenti to be the world's most accomplished sushi maker.
Day after day, Jiro meticulously matches his carefully cut catch of the day with carefully shaped cakes of rice that has been steamed, vinegared and sweetened to perfection to bring out the finest flavor of those freshest of little fillets.
Perfection is his goal.
Sukiyabashi Jiro's loyal patrons or newcomers intent upon experiencing the epitome of sushi must reserve their seats at the counter a year or more in advance and be prepared to be set back around $300 for one of Jiro's sushi sets of ten to a dozen pieces. A lot of gourmands -- and sushi snobs -- clearly think a date with culinary greatness is worth the effort and expense. Sukiyabashi Jiro is always sold out.
Inside Jiro's Sushi DenIntroduced to Jiro by noted Japanese food critic and Jiro-devotee Masuhiro Yamamoto, director David Gelb gained access to behind the scenes preparations at Sukiyabashi Jiro. Gelb, a one man crew with a translator, strategically fit himself into a corner, turned on his camera and recorded how a day plays out at the restaurant. Jiro is an interesting character, recognizable as representative of old school Japanese behavior. Basically, he was born into a working class family, found a trade for himself, stuck to it, developed his skills and, after years of obsessively pursuing perfection, is at the height of his career.
Jiro is a minimalist. He keeps things simple. He has his set daily routine and likes to follow it. He focuses on his work, apparently to the exclusion of anything else other than a daily read of the newspaper. And, even at his advanced age, he's at work every day. He remains a hard taskmaster, demanding perfection from himself and from the others who work for him, all of whom -- including his son and heir apparent Yoshikazu Ono -- have been his apprentices and trained arduously under his watchful eye for years.Celebrity Chef Jiro Ono As The Leading Man
Jiro isn't self-conscious about being on camera. He just does what he does and that doesn't include his seeming to find himself at all fascinating. But we do. As self-effacing as he is, Jiro's commitment to perfect form -- manifested as he constructs perfectly shaped and sized rice cakes and soothes the perfectly proportioned slices of raw Akami, Ahi and Akagai into the perfect position, and places them on a patron's plate when they're the perfect temperature for premium taste -- is fascinating.
Jiro's sushi style is quite simple -- just raw fish and rice, no distracting side dishes, no sake -- and we all know that perfect simplicity is the hardest thing of all to achieve.
Jiro works without a menu. Each day, based on experience acquired over a lifetime, he improvises sushi, working with only the best fish to be found in the market, and with best quality rice hand selected and steamed to the perfect texture to match the catch of the day. That's what he does on camera, and Gelb's cinematography captures the gorgeousness of his every delicacy. And, viewers eat it up. But there's more to digest in this film.
Family Drama in the The Future
Jiro doesn't appear to be preoccupied with concerns about the restaurant's future, but first son Yoshikazu certainly is. Jiro tires easily, so more and more responsibility is falling on the shoulders of Yoshikazu, who was never asked whether or not he wanted to spend his life making sushi.
Gelb's interviews with Yoshikazu delve into his being the son of the world's most famous sushi chef, and it's clear that the heir apparent has mixed feelings about his relationship with his father, who has been his one and only employer and boss -- for his entire work life. He's devoted, yes. But he could use some space.
Jiro also has another son who has branched out and established his own sushi restaurant elsewhere in Tokyo. There are inherent rivalries between the two sons. But Jiro seems oblivious to such things. Life should be simple. His focus is on perfect sushi. That's what he does.
Curiosity About Japanese Culture
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a penetrating look at traditional Japanese culture. Yoshikazu's anxiety about eventually taking over Sukiyabashi is perhaps a mixture of his feelings about his father's aging and his own ability to live up to a parent's expectations and a younger generations concerns about changes in Japanese culture and way of life. Such changes are challenging to middle aged Japanese citizens who were raised with keen awareness of and respect for Japanese traditional arts, crafts and social practices but who are equally aware that younger generations frequently hunger for, as an example, McDonald's instead of sushi. Will Yoshikazu have the will to preserve his father's traditional skill or will he move on to do something else?
Concerns About Cultural Changes
Currents of concern about cultural change flow through this film, but Gelb really doesn't dive into them very deeply. His focus is on the celebrity chef and the glory of his sushi. It's an approach that will probably satisfy the appetites of foody audiences around the world. But those who hunger for understanding of Japanese culture may want a larger portion of information about the origins of sushi-making, and how that traditional culinary skill is of the same cultural tissue as, say, seishi or kibori or katana-zukuri. Or even just a mouthful.
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- Title: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
- Director: David Gelb
- Running Time: 81 mins.
- US Theatrical Release Date: March 9, 2012 (limited)
- MPAA Rating: PG for Parental Guidance for Mild Thematic Elements and Brief Smoking.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Location: Tokyo, Japan
- Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
- Production Country: USA
- Production Company: Corner Store Entertainment
- U.S. Theatrical Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures
- Official Website