Hey gang, Sam here with a few thoughts about the festival. For this article I will be focusing on Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Cafeteria Man, two movies that explore food in vastly different realms. Next week I will bring you some interviews with filmmakers responsible for Buck and The Redemption of General Butt Naked. Join me, won’t you?
If Koyaanisqatsi and “Planet Earth” had a sushi child, it would look a lot like David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a triumph of sumptuous storytelling that explores the world’s most acclaimed sushi restaurant. The protagonist is Jiro Ono, the setting is present-day Tokyo, and the subject is sushi. Nothing but sushi, and everything about sushi.
An early scene in the film, brilliant in its simplicity, lets the viewer know exactly what you might get at Jiro’s acclaimed sushi restaurant. A potential customer comes in and asks for a brochure.
“No brochures, just a card”, is the reply.
“Should I make reservations?” he asks.
“We only take reservations.”
“When should I make them?”
“One month in advance. It is February, we are taking reservations for March.”
“Oh. Can we get appetizers and drinks before the sushi? Something to eat before the
“Only sushi. Plates start at 30,000 Yen (300 US dollars).”
“The plates start at 30, 000 yen. The dishes depend on what is in season.”
This is how Jiro Ono, owner and head chef at the worlds’ most celebrated sushi restaurant, operates his business. Apprentices study year round, and after ten years they are ready to cook the eggs. The process is meant to weed out the weak, and does so efficiently. One apprentice relates a story in which, after 200 unacceptable egg sushi dishes, he finally got one past Jiro. “I cried when he said ‘good’. I wanted to pump my fist in the air, but I knew to show some restraint. It meant so much to me.”
The main storyline of Jiro is the family dynamics at play in and out of this restaurant. Jiro has two sons, both of whom are extremely accomplished sushi chefs in their own right. The younger son has opened his own restaurant at the encouragement of his father. The older son has been waiting patiently to inherit the restaurant from Jiro, but knows not to hold his breath. Jiro is 85, and has been working in the industry for 75 years. He no longer goes to the fish market every morning, but he still prepares each piece of sushi himself. He has no plans for retirement.
The colors on display in the various locales of Tokyo really pop (thanks in no small part to the RED camera), and the hero shots of the various sushi at Master Ono’s restaurant are truly remarkable. I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu floating from the direction of Koyaanisqatsi, and my sneaking suspicion was confirmed when it was, in fact, a Philip Glass score over one of the many timelapse shots included in the film. A particularly memorable scene involved Jiro’s eldest as he purveyed the seafood at Tokyo’s fish market. In the U.S., if you want the best produce or meat a city has to offer, you can probably get by with a well-placed bribe. Here, vendors practically beg for Jiro’s business. At the end of the day, its not just about the money, they would rather have him sell the fish on his sushi because he cares about the preparation and treats it with the respect it no doubt deserves.
It would be easy to put this in the “interesting but straightforward” doc category, chiefly because it only aspires to be as lofty as its subject. It achieves this goal, however, which is a triumph for both the subject and the filmmaker. Mister Gelb, accustomed to trips in Japan and a connoisseur of fine sushi, unobtrusively documents the inner workings and relationships of this tiny restaurant, which serves each piece of sushi, individually, to each customer at the ten-seat bar. There is no pomp, no parade, no display of awards (Jiro’s restauarant has a perfect 3 Michelen stars). Instead, there is a dedication to the work and craft that is central to this culture, a sense that not working is not acceptable. Jiro really does dream of sushi, and this lifelong pursuit drives him, and his employees, to greatness.
In discussing the film with Mister Gelb, he informed me that a new trend in sushi is developing, one that is both troubling and a bit humorous. Sushi originated in Japan, and at some point made the jump to the United States via California, and later to New York and then parts of Europe. New York is now sending back sushi to Japan, in a rehashed style that is both inferior and more complicated (think Philly and California Rolls). You know you have made it when a country steals your idea, butchers it, and then tries to sell it back to you as novelty. Jiro, no doubt, will stay with his classics.
Cafeteria Man is a food doc of a different color, eschewing the formal, patient approach to food prep and instead focusing on the informal, impatient chef Tony Geraci, who has been struggling for years to get healthy, locally sourced food in the Baltimore City Public School system. Surprisingly, lawmakers and politicians actually don’t care what their children are eating for lunch. In a particularly poignant scene early in the film, Geraci explains that for 14 cents a serving, children can get canned peaches (no doubt stewing in a syrupy puddle of high fructose corn syrup). For nine cents a peach, children can get the real thing, straight from a local farmer. Not really rocket science, right? Wrong. There is big business in having an entire school district eating your substandard packaged peaches, and that’s why Mister Geraci fights every day to make food more accessible and affordable to inner-city youth.
After the screening, the filmmakers actually said they probably could have done an expose on the subject instead of a more hopeful peace on the school’s foods, but because they actually lived in the Baltimore area, feared for their own safety. As one filmmaker said, “there is rampant corruption in that city, and we we felt there wasn’t much good in attacking that system, it was better to focus on the positive.”
That’s all folks, join me next week when I wrap up the SilverDocs coverage, including two Flixclusive interviews from Cindy Meehl (director of Buck) and Ryan Hill (award-winning cinematographer of The Redemption of General Butt Naked).