Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Down a subway stairwell, in the basement of an office tower, is Sukiyabashi Jiro, an unassuming 10-seat sushi only restaurant owned by Jiro Ono who is widely considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. Jiro has made sushi since he was 9 – for more than 75 years – and has exalted his craft to the highest possible standards, earning his tiny, no frills establishment 3 Michelin stars which is a badge of honour proclaiming that he consistently serves exceptional cuisine, “worthy of a special journey”. Director David Gelb’s feature film debut is an elegantly filmed portrait of this artisan, or shokunin, and his passionate pursuit of perfection, chronicling his drive to improve himself and the food he serves each time he serves it. Although the subject is sushi, words like honour, integrity and tradition better describe what drives this compelling documentary.
At the heart of the film is Jiro himself who is impossibly spry and energetic for a man of 85 years. His drive for perfection is insatiable. He is seen tasting with great concentration again and again, describing techniques for keeping rice at body temperature which is the ideal for serving, and massaging octopus for 40 instead of 30 minutes to make it as tender as possible. His restaurant is a serious affair: early on we see a young potential customer stumble in to learn one must make a reservation at least one month in advance (although it is advisable to book much, much earlier), there is only sushi on offer, and prices start at 30,000 yen (about $360 USD).
But Jiro Dreams of Sushi is more than a portrait of a single man and his singular obsession – it is also a fascinating micro-study of a culture in which exacting standards and excellence are celebrated. Jiro accepts apprentices but the training is so rigorous that his elder son Yoshikazu jokes that many apprentices have left suddenly, without notice, with the shortest stint lasting just one day. The first task an apprentice must master is perfectly ringing out a burning hot towel for guests; after 10 years, he is allowed to cook an egg. One apprentice describes preparing a dish for 3-4 months, some 200 times, before Jiro finally accepts his offering; the apprentice was so thrilled he broke down in tears. Jiro’s philosophy of perfection is one that is also embraced by those who surround him – he buys rice from a dealer who won’t sell his grains to high-end hotels because they wouldn’t know how to prepare it properly. An extraordinary scene at the fish auction shows Jiro’s tuna dealer who will only buy the fish he considers the best. Or nothing at all.
Although Jiro may sound like a fanatic, he is an entirely empathetic character, who is shown joking with friends and working very, very hard. The film also explores Jiro’s relationships with his two sons – Yoshikazu is in his fifties and still works for his father, facing enormous expectations given his father’s extraordinary reputation. It is anticipated that as the eldest, in the Japanese tradition, Yoshikazu will take over the establishment when Jiro is no longer able to work. Jiro is shown to be loving but stern: when his second son, Takashi, started his own sushi restaurant, Jiro was absolutely confident in his abilities, but Takashi was also told that he was his own man now and could not return to the fold. Jiro explains that when parents tell their children they can come home at anytime, they create failures.
What is truly astonishing is the immense care Jiro takes with each morsel he serves, despite his several decades of experience. The filmmaker takes full advantage of the performative nature of Jiro’s work and allows the visuals to do much of the talking – like a sculptor, Jiro’s hands deftly and cautiously mould each mound of rice until it is the perfect size, shape and density; it is then topped with a piece of the highest quality fish, brushed with a concoction which leaves it glistening, jewel-like. It is then placed with pride on a simple black plate in front of its lucky consumer to be eaten immediately. The result is a literal visual feast that will leave you salivating.