I love sushi. Not just the taste, but the overall experience. For me, sushi is an event – there is ceremony, pageantry, and tradition that I love and respect but know is beyond me historically. It is the only eating experience that, when I receive what will always be a rather expensive bill, I’m not even sort of guilty. To me, that would be the equivalent of feeling bad for paying to see fine art, or an amazing live show.
In many ways I consider myself a sushi purist; I avoid rolls with sauces and tempura-covered-whatever, and you can kindly spare me the cream cheese. Nigiri and sashimi are my presentations of choice, and I never stray. One of the vital things, to me, about the sushi experience is giving deference to the sushi chef. When I was in Japan many years ago in a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant with six seats, I was set straight by the not-so-jolly chef behind the immaculately clean counter. Everything was made clear via pantomime, but I gathered quickly what sushi etiquette was all about. He did not offer soy sauce, or wasabi, and I wasn’t allowed to point at anything in request. He took my cash before seating me, and began serving whatever he so desired – and it was heavenly. Before I stood to leave he raised his eyebrows inquisitively – I enthusiastically nodded my thanks, at which point he produced a barely-friendly grunt and stepped away through the kitchen door.
A master sushi chef reads you, and deciphers your palate. He knows just how much salt, sweet, and hot to combine in that small, single-bite piece of art. To me, there is no greater experience in cuisine – and Jiro Ono is the pinnacle of what that experience can be. David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi is much more than a documentary about food – it is the story of a deeply cherished career that colors a generation of men in one family, with the uneasy prospect that our treatment of the finite resource that is fish may ensure that the tradition of creating shokunin (the master sushi chef) will die with the dwindling catches.
Jiro Ono is eighty-five, the oldest chef to have been awarded the coveted Michelin Guide’s three star rating, all from his simple, ten seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. In a career where apprenticeships commonly last many decades and competition between restaurants is fierce, Jiro’s seventy-five year legacy of striving for perfection is impressive. In the long shadow of Jiro stands his eldest son, Yoshikazu. While his younger brother, Takashi, was able to depart Tokyo and start his own sushi restaurant, tradition dictates that Yoshikazu succeed his father and carry on his legacy – a legacy which Jiro feels he still has much to improve upon.
The care shown the food, from close relationships with expert vendors in the famous Japanese fish markets, to Jiro’s precise instructions and preparation once the ingredients have reached his kitchen, are interesting on their own. This very well could simply be a film about the delicacy and expertise with which Jiro, his son, and the young apprentices that work for them prepare what is considered the best sushi in the world. What elevates the film, however, is what his passion meant in the scheme of his relationships, and the source of his drive. Jiro departed home at nine, developing a fierce drive to succeed and a love for his craft. This love made him a stranger to the two boys that would eventually follow in their father’s footsteps.
Yoshikazu and Jiro have a very unique dynamic; one that plays out on the screen in subtle but powerful ways. A self-admitted absentee father, there are small cracks of what seem like regret dominated by a clear pride in what he built, and his expectations of what Yoshikazu will accomplish once he is gone. Yoshikazu clearly respects and reveres his father, but there is a looming cloud in what Jiro’s passing might mean for his future. Many Japanese restaurants live and die by the reputation and presence of their founders; it is established early on that not only will Yoshikazu be expected to hold to the exceptionally high standards of his father, but greatly surpass his skills to create a name for himself. It’s almost sad as a viewer knowing that the fifty-plus year old Yoshikazu would have to prove himself at all, being every bit the master sushi chef himself.
Touched on in a delicate but firm manner, is the subject of over-fishing. The family reflects on the worrisome changes in the commercialization of the fishing industry, and the diminishing returns they are seeing in their own as a result. While the Japanese are often painted as indifferent and often aggressive with their relationship to the sea and its resources, Jiro, his sons, and the vendors they entrust with their reputation for greatness all communicate a sense of urgency in promoting moderation and sustainable fishing practices.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi sits atop my viewing list thus far here at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It’s beautiful, insightful, will absolutely make you hungry, and has a a depth and character that is undeniable. David Gelb has a winner.
The Upside: Visually pleasing, very personal, and well edited – Gelb lets Jiro and those around him tell the story with their craft as much as their words.
The Downside: It’s highly unlikely I’ll be in Ginza anytime soon. This is an incredible bummer.
On the Side: The greatest drunken (legal) crime you can commit, past perhaps taking your pants off and crying at a party, is eating convenience store sushi. Be kind to yourself.
Dustin Hucks writes for Film School Rejects, has written for Ain’t it Cool News, Hit Fix, and can additionally be found at the Metacafe Entertainment Network.