(This review was originally published on March 23, 2012 at Reel Film News)
First-time feature director David Gelb finds modesty and discipline in his documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a glimpse at the life of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, proprietor of a renowned ten-seat sushi bar that is tucked unassumingly in the bustling underground of the Tokyo subway. Jiro spends his life immersed in his work, striving for perfection, and shares his thoughts here in casual, intermittent conversation that recounts everything from his childhood to the present day. Gelb follows the chef’s philosophy on work, happiness and reaching equilibrium as if striving to emulate the man’s disposition with his filmmaking technique (it took over two years to complete the documentary), conveying the material like an ancient art form. Quiet and observant, “Jiro” is almost as meticulously assembled as the food in the hands of the film’s subject, a culinary artist whose passion reflects decades of honing his craft.
At first, Jiro’s establishment might be misconstrued as a little pretentious. The restaurant’s limited space requires booking months in advance to secure a seat and people travel from around the globe to visit the sanctum of Sukiyabashi Jiro, which could resemble an age-old prototype for the contemporary sushi bar (or at times a monastery). Its surfaces and appliances are immaculate. Several apprentices work diligently behind the scenes while Jiro and his older son, 50-year-old Yoshikazu (who has only recently inherited some of his father’s duties), run the front lines. Patrons are served in an almost ritualistic manner, one piece of sushi at a time; for newcomers, this can be an intimidating experience. Jiro scrutinizes his customers as if their roles had been transposed, his serious, craggy expression unwavering as he applies the finishing touches to each little masterpiece for presentation. For a movie audience, this is an entirely different experience; without the food physically in front of you (or 85 years of culinary wisdom sizing you up), you’ll feel equal parts fascination and hunger, particularly if you’re a sushi fanatic like me.
Though minimalist in its appearance, the restaurant was the first in its category to receive three Michelin stars (about as prestigious as culinary awards get). Famed food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who also consulted with Gelb during filming and is a top authority on sushi, considers Jiro’s to be the best in the world. A fifteen minute sit down at Sukiyabashi Jiro can cost upwards of $300, a meal that will consist of very little conversation with the employees. This is a result of practice rather than pretension, and Gelb certainly emphasizes style and grace over any kind of status.
Eventually, the story delves in to Jiro’s family life, predominantly his relationship with his two sons. The older, Yoshikazu, is destined to succeed his father at Sukiyabashi Jiro while the younger, Takashi, runs his own restaurant in another section of town. The establishment, as well as the trade, become a symbol of how a man dedicates his life to something and the rare art of being fulfilled. As the secret to this way of life seems to be simplicity, like Jiro’s philosophy, “you must fall in love with your work,” Gelb’s patient cinematography gives us something to ruminate on.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” isn’t for one particular taste, and isn’t limited to foodies, sushi lovers or travel enthusiasts. There is something very compelling about this story, and it’s evident that Gelb was inspired when telling it (he initially had the thought after watching BBC’s “Planet Earth” series). Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer’s editing is as clean as the plates at Sukiyabashi Jiro, making this one much crisper than most independent documentaries. That said, there was one unfortunate down side to this film: when I left the theater, I felt like I’d need to fly 12,000 miles just to satisfy my craving. If you’re like me, that’s what 82 minutes of watching elegantly filmed sushi will do to you.