19-25 July 2013 #665

Jiro dreams of sushi

Sophia Pande

Is your profession your passion? If it isn’t shouldn’t it be? Well, of course we all know it isn’t that easy, after all, how many of us are able to live for our work? To be able to spring out of bed with the proverbial song in our hearts because we are anticipating a day of doing what we love? Most of us work so we can live, but not Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old Michelin starred chef who wakes in the mornings having dreamt about how to perfect his already sublime sushi and heads to his revered but tiny 10 seat restaurant to implement his newest strategy to make that perfect mouthful.

Made in 2011 by David Gelb, what makes Jiro Dreams of Sushi fascinating is that in addition to the film being about one man’s quest for perfection, it is also a fascinating cultural study disguised as a character study of that one man and his peculiarities. While Jiro may dream of perfect sushi, he is far from perfect himself. Even at 85 he is a powerhouse, focused on his passion, a hard taskmaster, and a demanding father to his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, both of who apprenticed at his restaurant.

Yoshikazu, the eldest, who is 50 but still works under his father is expected to take over the restaurant after Jiro. As hardworking and loyal as he is, Yoshikazu still chafes under his father’s autocratic system. After Jiro collapsed at the age of 70 at the seafood market, Yoshikazu has taken over the hallowed task of choosing the day’s seafood. This means every morning he wakes up at an unearthly hour to go and meet their most trusted vendors to get the finest tuna, octopus, salmon roe, and many other such delicate essentials to make their near perfect sushi.

Takashi meanwhile was pushed out of the restaurant after his 10 year long apprenticeship (all apprentices must remain for a minimum of 10 years before they are ever allowed the title of ‘chef’) by Jiro himself who knew that according to strict Japanese tradition there is only space for the older son to take over the business.

Both sons are clearly very talented and rigorously trained, but it is unclear whether either of them will be able to emerge from behind the shadow of the god-like Jiro who is so revered that when he places a lovingly handcrafted sushi in front of his customers they are often too nervous to eat.

These complex human dynamics, as well as the finding, preparing, and making of the sushi are expertly but unobtrusively filmed by Gelb himself in a crystal clear cinematographic style that is perfect for such a closely observed documentary.

Most documentary makers manipulate their subject matter, writing scripts in advance and tweaking their subject’s behaviour to create more drama. This is clearly not Gelb’s method. Having the precise eye and the instinct to choose the right subject, he steps back, letting events unfold for themselves, and so they do, with each character stepping forward quietly, gently, and yet trustingly so that we get a true sense of whom they are. This is the hallmark of a great documentary maker.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a pleasure to watch, it will make you ravenously hungry and wanting to rush to the nearest sushi place, it will make you want to book the next flight to Japan, but it will also make you think about traditions, good or bad, and whether or not that much hard work over the course of an entire life time is worth it for a moment or two of ephemeral perfection. Perhaps it is, if we could just get our hands on some of Jiro’s sushi.