Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old chef who lives, breathes and dreams of nothing but sushi.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a famous 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It attained a rare 3-star Michelin rating back in 2008. Patrons pay at least ¥30000 a meal (roughly $370) and need to reserve at least a month in advance. Meals are often quick and conversations are seldom had. Yet for sushi lovers and food lovers, being able to experience world-class sushi from the man widely regarded as the best sushi chef in the world is worth more than the price and lengths needed.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary by David Gelb, is centered around that chef, one of Japan’s living national treasures, the title character who looks every bit like a person in their mid-80’s. But beyond the frail image is a man hardened by a rocky ascension from childhood to immediate early adulthood, and chiseled by a craft worked on non-stop for 75 years. He is a true shokunin always trying to achieve perfection.
A virtuoso in the art of sushi-making, Jiro is admired by all in his profession. So it is understandable that his peers has labeled him the master of sushi. Despite that, Jiro continues to be better than he was the day before, constantly looking for ways to improve. Not long ago he developed a new way to cook rice, a pressurized technique much different from everyone else. Jiro is a culinary magician, always looking to create new tricks.
Behind every great magician, though, is a great assistant, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi does a fantastic job of focusing on the unsung men who help bring Jiro’s sushi to life. A collection of assistant chefs refined through a decade of arduous training — they aren’t allowed to even touch a sushi without learning how to properly squeeze out towels, which can take weeks to perfect — and filled with a wealth of passed-down knowledge often do the dirty work, meticulously prepping hours beforehand. And as naturally gifted as any renowned chef can be, their skill can only take them so far if their ingredients don’t meet their standards. Along the way, Jiro has been fortunate enough to form valuable connections with the best merchants and vendors in the market. Dealers of high quality tuna and rice flock towards the chef, providing key elements to Jiro’s masterpieces.
The most fascinating narrative told by Gelb revolves around Jiro’s ill-fated sons, destined (forced) to be sushi chefs at birth. In particular, 51-year-old Yoshikazu, the oldest son, main assistant and heir apparent of Sukiyabashi Jiro, is tragically caught in the profession his father constantly strives to perfect. Despite his own increasing old age, he cannot open his own restaurant like his younger brother Takashi because Japanese custom dictates the oldest son must succeed his father. And when he does, he’ll face the reality of always being compared to his legendary father and never coming close to receiving the same accolade or recognition.
Running at a surprisingly short 81 minutes, the film feels longer than it is, lingering a bit through the story of Jiro’s childhood. Gelb a few times also falls into the old documentary trap of slow-motion, zoomed-in stills.
But throughout Jiro Dreams of Sushi the audience is immersed in magnificent, mouthwatering attention to detail, like when Jiro, who often gazes with hawk-like intensity, notes during their first bite which hand customers eat with. Unbeknownst to the customer, he’ll then place the next sushi beside that hand so that the food is more accessible to them. That is the beauty of Jiro and this film.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Images and trailer via Magnolia Pictures]