“Sukiyabashi Jiro” sits next to a subway exit in the basement of an office building, an auspicious location for a three-star Michelin restaurant. It is the home of Jiro Ono, the world’s oldest sushi maker at 85 years old, and his oldest son, Yoshikazu. With only ten seats, reservations are taken a month in advance, costing 300,000 yen for the meal consisting only of sushi – no appetizers or dessert.
Director David Gelb initially planned on doing a documentary in Japan about the world of sushi, but after much research, he was told to visit Jiro’s tiny eatery in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and the story of one family began to tell itself in front of his camera. 150 hours of footage later, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” was made.
This documentary follows Jiro and his oldest son, as well as his younger son who has his own sushi restaurant separate from his father, as we get a taste of not only his food but of their culture. Kicked out of his home at age nine by his alcoholic father, Jiro found his own way in life through sushi making, and has since become the most revered figure in that part of the food world. If you attend his restaurant, you may see him watching you more than you are watching him. Jiro is studying you – if you are left-handed, he will place the sushi on the left side of your plate. If you are a woman, he will make the sushi smaller so that you finish at the same time as any males eating with you.
There is no mystery to the way that Jiro and his crew make sushi, they follow traditional techniques, just doing a few things differently. Another part of it is the trust that he has in his fishmongers and rice providers, who are equally as meticulous about their line of work as Jiro is about slicing fish to the exact thinness that they should be. Yoshikazu is expected to succeed his father when, and if, he retires, although some feel that his father should let him take over now. Even if he did, food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto (featured prominently through the documentary) attested that his sushi would have to be twice as good as Jiro’s in order for other people to say that it is on par with his father.
Most of the documentary takes place in the sushi restaurant, which is where Jiro, his son, and their apprentices spend most of their waking hours. Jiro has a set of rules he follows to create his craft, one of which is cleanliness. David Gelb’s direction of the film has a smooth and clean look, deceptively simple – just like the art of making sushi. The film-making perfectly parallels the food, upfront and basic, but dynamic and full of texture, a wonderful reflection of the culture of Japan.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” tackles the topic of sustainability as well in a succinct way, with a diminishing amount of high-quality fish available at the fish markets that Yoshikazu goes to on a daily basis. Overfishing and hitting the bottom of the sea with trawls has caused younger fish to be caught in nets along with the older and bigger fish, leading to smaller populations. Sushi, in a way, is as much about preservation as it is a celebration of the seafood. It is a bite-sized taste of the life a fish has lived, after being lovingly treated by the sushi chefs, and is about showing the best of what the water has to offer, rather than filling your stomach.
The Japanese are known for their obsession with being obsessed, and Jiro is no exception. It is not merely obsession for the sake of being obsessed, but the pursuit of perfection. Even in his mid-80’s, Jiro says he has not attained perfection and that if you believe you have perfected something, you are just fooling yourself. It opens the debate that is the obsessive nature of their culture to truly perfect what you do through routine and constant practice, or do you obsess to perfect in order to perpetually grow and improve, not necessarily perfecting what you initially intended to but finding your own path that becomes perfection? Maybe discussing the Buddhist concepts of Nirvana and being one with the universe are a bit too deep for a New York food blog, but watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” will surely open these thoughts up to you just as much as you are admiring the sushi.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a beautiful documentary for a number of reasons. The cinematography perfectly matches the topic, and the story will compel you to buy plane tickets to Japan so you can make a reservation at Jiro’s restaurant. It may seem like a simple look into the life of a family of sushi-makers, but much like sushi is more than fish on top of rice, this documentary will provoke many deep thoughts from the viewer. Along with a few revelations and surprises along the way, the praise heaped on this film is more than warranted, and I highly recommend it, whether you like fish or not.
You can order Jiro Dreams of Sushi from Amazon.com.