Where most American restaurant-owners strive for a living, Japanese strive for perfection. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but a generalization that’s easy to come by when comparing the average quality of a Japanese restaurant to an American. The service in most McDonald’s in Japan is on par with upscale American restaurants, even if the food isn’t.
That being said, there is no comparison to Jiro Ono’s sushi. Jiro is a master of his craft who has strived for perfection everyday of his 70+ years as a sushi chef. Jiro Dreams of Sushi isn’t a documentary about the struggles one has to go through to find their calling. Instead, it’s a film about the ecstasy and clarity that comes after.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Director: David Gelb
Release Date: March 9, 2012
“I feel victorious,” Jiro says, near the end of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Peculiar words for a man who constantly claims to be far from perfection. In truth, he is as close to perfect as there will be, as far as sushi chefs are concerned. In the eyes of his peers and critics, he is the grey-bearded wizard of sushi. His three Michelin Guide stars, national awards, and rave critic reviews are the end-product of a lifetime dedicated to perfecting his craft. A meal at his humble restaurant, buried under a nondescript Tokyo office building, costs at least $300 (or 30,000 yen).
What makes Jiro such an inspirational and moving film, but not due to sappy narration. It’s the power of David Gelb’s direction and cinematography that makes the film so captivating. Like the food of Jiro, the filmmaking is free of garnish and flash, but always done with a steady-eye for visual presentation. The film could easily be a sob story about an unloved boy rising above to become a renown sushi chef. That’s certainly one story within Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but it’s layered within a much more dense web of recollections, fears for the future of the sushi chef in Japan, and Jiro’s kitchen secrets — though, he is always transparent about his process.
Gelb tells the story of Jiro and his restaurant through the food and Jiro’s passion. We learn about his childhood in passing. We learn about his relationships with his sons through the details of their trade. What’s more, Jiro is such a willing and forward subject that the interviews always feel natural and humorous. You don’t often come across an award-winning chef who is as open and reflective as Jiro. He’s a wonderful subject that remains charming and full of mystery even once the credits roll.
The film opens with a montage showing Jiro’s morning routine. Like all aspects of his life, it’s a extremely focused, deceivingly simple practice that he handles with uncanny precision. The same can be said of all the main player that the make the restaurant possible: his son who goes to the fishmarket, the fish dealers who can tell quality by inspecting the fish’s pigment, and the fisherman who are as selective about the fish they sell as they are about who they sell it to. They all have two things in common: They state they aren’t in it for money and they look up to Jiro as the something to aspire to. The dedication to their craft is staggering.
Training to become a sushi chef in Japan is a long, rigorous process. Through the trials and tribulations of Jiro’s apprentice, we are exposed to the lengths one must go in order to be promoted. It’s not uncommon for an apprentice to spend ten-years at a restaurant until they are allowed to cook an egg. Even then, their egg-cooking skill will be scrutinized until Jiro views it as being close-to-perfect. The apprentice said it took him over 200 tries until he cooked a batch Jiro accepted. Unlike so many Western chefs, Jiro doesn’t make a scene and scream at his cooks. He sets the standard for quality and forces his cooks to meet it. That’s it.
Despite taking on such a small subject, Gelb keeps the film visually and intellectually exciting. His filmmaking reflects the polished, clean style of Jiro’s cooking. Every frame of the film is gorgeous. Slow zooms, atmospheric lighting, and crisp visuals turn the kitchen scenes into glorious food porn and the exterior scenes into travel guide eye-candy. Gelb finds ways to add variety in the visuals, turning to a strange wide-lens for the fish market scenes and making “talking heads”-scenes feel far from stagnant — a feat that few documentarians can achieve; that this is Gelb’s first feature-length documentary comes as a shock. He is a talent to watch.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an inspirational film that finds its spirit by unconventional means. Like the sushi Jiro makes, Gelb makes this debut into something otherworldly by focusing on the smallest details and capturing each moment with a perfect-eye for composition and depth. We don’t need to know every moment of Jiro’s life, because, when each frame is captured this well, the story behind the face is made transparent.
Jiro makes a lifetime of hard work look so easy — and it is easy, for him. It’s what he loves and what he’ll continue to do until the customers complain about him looking too senile. His commitment and love of his work is inspiring, but it’s how Gelb creates a world out of his life with such unique visuals, music, and storytelling that make Jiro Dreams of Sushi such a magical documentary.