Masters of a particular art show you how they work or how their tricks work but in that process they would still leave you with bewildering thoughts. In that way, Jiro Ono, the 85 year old Japanese chef (now he is 88 years old) is a master and his art is making sushi. David Gelb’s monomania documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011) isn’t about the preparations of ‘sushi.’ It adds various layers and contexts, which touches upon the aesthetic and culinary traditions of Japan.
When Jiro prepares the dish, it seems very simple. A fish is sliced, cooked, stuffed with rice in perfection. After painting it with a swipe of sauce it is placed in a tile-like plate. It is eaten in one bite, while Jiro gets busy working on the next course. In Jiro’s restaurant alcohols or other main courses are not served. There is only 20-piece sushi from mild to complex tastes. Speaking of the restaurant, it has a three-star Michelin Guide rating (the highest rating). However, his restaurant holds only 10 seats with a full meal costing starts at 300,000 yen. Early in the documentary, an out-of-towner comes into Jiro’s, wondering if they have any pamphlets. “We only have business cards”, he is told and was kindly advised to make reservations at least a month in advance. Yamamoto, a food critic claims that, Jiro’s is the best sushi restaurant in the world and he says: “No one ever has a bad experience there.”
Jiro is a lean, ascetic man with a smiling face. He left home at the age of 9 (2 years after his father’s death) and has joined as a sushi apprentice. At that time, the dish was sold in the streets of Tokyo. The dish achieved international fame in the 1980’s, when it was introduced as ‘California Roll’ in USA. Jiro shows many photos about his youth and in the later part of documentary, he meets his old friends. The images and views show Jiro’s rebellious nature. He served in the World War II, but has always dreamed about ways to improve sushi. In his youth, Jiro was much obsessed with his work, which even made his kids to ask, “Who is the stranger sleeping in our home?”
Jiro relationship with his sons is a bit complicated. At 50, the elder son, Yoshikazu still remains as his father’s apprentice and is in line to take his father’s reins. The younger son, Takashi is charged with taking care of second restaurant, in the tourist-friendly Roppongi Hills. Jiro admits that he wasn’t much of a father and feels bad about not letting his sons to go to college. These negatives are also the result of his obsessed, traditional nature. Jiro has also comprehended about his mortality and so lets his elder son to buy fish at the market (after the heart attack at the age of 70). However, the master is most precise even in buying the fish. They can’t just buy any fish. He has passed his wisdom of how to buy a fish to his son, who now participates in a tuna auction in order to procure the ones he wants.
Inside the kitchen, the master always makes sure to taste the dish, his son and other apprentices prepare. Although Jiro works without rest even at this age, he was amply supported by his son and three other apprentices. They strive hard to meet their boss’ lofty standards. Their dedication is beyond detail, like the massaging of octopus by hand for 40 minutes to bring it to the ideal texture and release its flavor. One of the chief apprentices has tried the restaurant's sweet omelet 200 times before perfecting that dish.
David Gelb excellently portrays the discipline through the sheer detail with which he observes his processes. Gelb’s slow-motion montages of chef’s cutting and massaging fish or Jiro’s preparation of sushi are shown like the performance of an orchestra. Gelb doesn’t simply make this as a hagiography. He points out that Jiro’s sacrifice has taken its toll not only with him. He briefly ponders over the Japan’s overfishing problem. The camerawork is at its best when it follows inside Tsukiji fish market, where only the finest specimens of seafood are offered for inspection.
|Yoshikawa (the elder son)|
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” might intrigue any patient viewer, since this is not just about sushi. It is about an artists’ personal search for perfection. “I don’t think I have achieved perfection, but I feel ecstatic every day.” You really have to admire this man’s modesty.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking