Director: David Gelb
By Marilyn Ferdinand
With the proven popularity of what I’ve come to think of as a new subgenre—the aged celebrity documentary—and the overwhelming success of sushi as a food staple the world over, it was only a matter of time until someone made a film about one of Japan’s living national treasures: Jiro Ono, shokunin (sushi chef) extraordinaire. The 85-year-old Ono runs a sushi bar in a Tokyo subway in the Ginza district called Sukiyabashi Jiro. Despite its size—its seating is limited to nine stools at the bar, the bathroom is in the subway corridor, and its chefs do some of their work in that corridor—Sukiyabashi Jiro has earned three stars from Michelin, patrons need to make reservations a month in advance, and prices start at $275 for one of Jiro’s orchestrated tasting menus. Well-heeled foodies will be calling their travel agents after seeing this film to chalk up another exclusive experience. They’d better hurry if they want to be served by Jiro himself, though from the sound of those who have eaten sushi from his hand and under his penetrating gaze, the experience is likely to be nerve-wracking.
Jiro is a person driven by his dreams—ideas for new ways to prepare sushi come to him the way the opening few bars of a new symphony might have come to Mozart. His creations aren’t like the dragon-shaped maki rolls and other food sculptures many of us have come to expect; he’s more of a nigiri specialist, concentrating on the quality of the rice, the wasabi, the seaweed, and most importantly, the fish, to tempt the palate. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re making nigiri, and the smallest flaw—a too-tough piece of fish, rice that is not at body temperature—will make a big difference. That Jiro has even thought about such things is a sign that he’s not just preparing food, he’s showing respect—for the ingredients, for the diners, and for his profession. An apprenticeship with him lasts 10 years, an eternity in our new Easy A world, but necessary for anyone who really wants to become a master.
As anyone who has had a dinner party knows, the preparations are as extensive and exhausting as the cooking itself. A day in the life of Sukiyabashi Jiro starts early, with daily trips to the fish and produce markets to get the freshest, most high-quality ingredients. Until Jiro was 70, he made these trips himself, but after he suffered a heart attack at the fish market, he delegated this work to his eldest son Yoshikazu. With this change, Jiro acknowledged his own frailty and the need to train Yoshikazu in all parts of the business he will eventually inherit—the workaholic old man will undoubtedly die with his apron on.
After the fish arrives, the three apprentices and two sous chefs go to work. One will sit in the subway corridor and lightly toast seaweed sheets on an electric grill. Others will work on the fish, marinating and massaging it. Someone will also have to prepare the grilled egg, a fascinating process that involves flipping the wide brick of egg using four chopsticks; it took the chef in charge of this task three months and 200 rejected batches before he made one Jiro considered edible. Later preparations include washing and cooking the rice under high pressure, mixing the sauces that will be painted onto the tops of various types of nigiri, slicing the fish just so, and, of course, tasting along the way to ensure the proper results and to work on developing the nose and palate needed to create high-quality sushi with utter consistency. Despite Jiro’s nocturnal flights of fancy, a shokunin’s life is one of endless repetition, hard work, and discipline. The financial rewards are small, and many apprentices do not last—we are told one left after only one day in the kitchen.
I was utterly fascinated by the mechanics of running Sukiyabashi Jiro. The restaurant maintains its high standards by finding the best suppliers of all its essential ingredients. A rice merchant sits with Jiro and jokes that a hotel wanted to buy rice from him; he says he would only sell it to them if Jiro okayed it. One suspects that he said that to stay on the severe old man’s good side, but he might have been sincere. In the rarified world of high-end sushi, word of such a sale would probably leak out and show disrespect to Jiro, so I suspect he might have been hinting that he would like Jiro’s blessing rather than actually doing the deed without it.
We also are introduced to the tuna vendor, and follow him to a tuna auction, where he examines the flesh of each fish using a flashlight and runs the flesh through his fingers to check its texture. He says that if he can’t buy the best fish at the market, he won’t buy anything; of course, what he buys is reserved for his best customers, including Sukiyabashi Jiro. Such fish is increasingly hard to get because of overfishing, and even Jiro must find substitutions for fish that are no longer available. Ironically, the global popularity of sushi may actually doom its future; it certainly is of great concern to the next generation of shokunin, like Yoshikazu and his younger brother Takashi, who has his own sushi bar that is the mirror image of his father’s.
The approach of this film reminded me a bit of the Dutch documentary 4 Elements in its intense focus on the world of work, the world of men. Little in the way of personal information makes it into the film, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions about these men from bits of dialogue that lightly season the film. Aside from a couple of customers and an old friend from childhood and her extended family who make a brief appearance, there are no women in the film. We know Jiro was married, since he has two sons, but absolutely no mention of his wife is made by anyone throughout the film; I assumed she was dead since she was not on the trip Jiro makes to his home town. Jiro’s own mother is mentioned only briefly when he and Yoshikazu visit her and his father’s graves. Jiro questions why he comes to visit them since they never took care of him when he was a child—Jiro’s father left when he was seven, and Jiro started work shortly thereafter for his own survival. He uncorks a good line that got a lot of laughs when he says parents who tell their children they can come back if their careers don’t work out are giving stupid advice that sets their children up for failure. He admits this is why he was harder on his sons than on the other apprentices—to ensure they would have successful careers. The question of whether Takashi and Yoshikazu wanted to be shokunin isn’t really broached, though Takashi said he hated it for the first two years and both boys wanted to go to college, an aspiration Jiro nixed. Basically, the Ono family is highly traditional, and if the brothers have sons—again, there is no mention of their personal lives—they, too, may be forced to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto speculates that Yoshikazu may be doomed to failure because Jiro’s shoes are just too big to fill.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an excellent overview of just what it takes to make the best sushi in the world. Yet in execution, the film suffers from a self-importance it doesn’t warrant. Yes, Jiro is an intense man who takes his work very seriously. But he also says repeatedly that he loves what he does. Despite some humor that comes out easily from the people being documented, Gelb sees fit to score the film with large doses of Philip Glass, whose droning minimalism is so portentous and dark that it takes some of the joy out of the enterprise. We’re talking about sushi here, not nuclear war. It actually is fun to cook and eat and come up with new recipes, but Gelb presents Jiro as an unsmiling taskmaster. Dashes of pre-20th-century classical music flatter the foodie’s rarified tastes and coordinate with Yamamoto’s assertion that Jiro’s menus are like symphonies; the use of pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, a violin virtuoso’s best friend, make rough parallels to Jiro’s virtuosic abilities. By the time the film’s last image flashes on screen—Jiro sitting on a train and slowing breaking into a grin—it’s too little too late. Nonetheless, the ideas about making and eating sushi leave an impression that just may change the way you dine, and that’s something any sushi lover can treasure.