Jiro Ono, at the time of this movie’s production, is the 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi restaurant hidden away in a subway station in Tokyo. The restaurant serves no appetizers and few desserts; it only has ten seats; and meals are designed to start and end quickly.
That being stated, it’s no ordinary restaurant: reservations for this prestigious recipient of multiple awards (including at least one from the Japanese government, according to the movie) start at ¥30,000–more than $300 USD at current exchange rates, according to the currency converter at XE.com–and must be made a month in advance. And this gorgeous film is every bit as elegantly crafted as is the delicious food on display.
“Once you decide on your occupation …”
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, like the restaurant that inspired it, and the dream that built and still upholds the restaurant, is a love letter of dedication to a singular purpose. Jiro Ono’s life is sushi and the making thereof, and this amazing documentary shares and radiates, almost to a fault, that passion of focus from start to finish. It excellently and beautifully blends all of its elements, from the basically perfect camera placement over a lovely array of sights and colors, to the beautiful orchestrated soundtrack and the crisp, humorous dialogue.
Jiro Ono’s and director David Gelb’s love of their respective crafts shines through every aspect of this straightforward yet richly detailed work, and lovers of sushi, fine dining, or even basic hard work may well find themselves drooling by movie’s end.
“You must immerse yourself in your work.”
Jiro, as he tells us, literally creates and receives ideas for sushi in his dreams, such is his determination to reach “perfection” in his craft, even if he isn’t quite sure when or if he ever will. His work ethic, almost frightening in its intensity, can nonetheless serve as a tremendous inspiration to viewers young and old as Jiro educates the viewer on the grand importance of continuous improvement. He opens the film by asking the deeply interesting question, “What defines taste?” While that theme in itself does not drive the movie, it does showcase Jiro’s eye, nose, and tongue for one of many different kinds of detail big and small.
Everything about Sukiyabashi Jiro focuses on efficient minimalism: the restaurant itself is small and devoid of empty space, and while its sushi is made from staggering varieties of fish and other aquatic wildlife, some cooked and some raw, the individual pieces themselves do not seem to contain many ingredients. Jiro, however, is a master of doing more with less, particularly with maximizing the flavor of his sushi to the greatest degree possible. He exercises great care throughout every aspect of the sushi development, ranging from how ingredients are to be sliced, all the way to what rice and fish should be used and how they should be selected.
This makes excellent visual material for the movie, which periodically treats the viewer to one or another gorgeous finished piece of sushi, along with a bilingual description of the primary ingredient, such as akami (lean tuna) or tako (octopus!). This is not a movie to watch on an empty stomach, as I had to learn the hard way, shortly before I made myself a delicious plate of Japanese carbonara.
It’s a restaurant that excels in humility …
The Michelin Group (yes, who also makes tires) publishes a variety of travel guides that includes a Red Guide devoted to restaurants and hotels. This guide, which has been published for over a century, gives a star rating to the best restaurants of the best. Stars are given for excellence in three areas–quality, originality, and consistency–and Sukiyabashi Jiro just so happens to have earned every one.
And yet this isn’t Jiro’s motivation for performing at his best. For him, doing so is an undeniably precious goal in itself, and it’s not about the money, despite the restaurant’s special course’s remarkably expensive price tag. As he says many times, he is in love with his work, and while the movie’s many reminders might feel repetitive, that becomes in some ways the point–to showcase and elevate the near-mechanical consistency of Jiro’s lifestyle.
To that end, he notices and provides for even the smallest details, which keep his customers more than satisfied. One particularly creative example is that if a guest is seen eating left-handed, Jiro (who is also a lefty) will place the next piece of sushi on the side most comfortable for the guest. Also, he memorizes seating arrangements and makes smaller sushi for the ladies so everyone will finish simultaneously.
… But it’s also a stable family business.
Jiro’s relations with his two sons form some of the most balancing and humanizing aspects of the film. Yoshikazu, the elder son, is fifty years old and is still working under his father at Sukiyabashi Jiro. The father’s reputation is stifling, and the expectations for the son will be unenviable. Takashi, the younger son, has his own restaurant in Roppongi Hills, which is in another part of Tokyo. Since Takashi is right-handed, his restaurant is a flipped version of his father’s. (Jiro’s restaurant also apparently has a reputation for having a stressful atmosphere that Takashi’s restaurant does not.)
Jiro left home at a very young age to begin work, and his married life started in such poverty that he couldn’t afford to drink Coca-Cola. He worked so hard that he rarely got to see his children, and while he told the surrounding anecdote (“I wasn’t much of a father”) with a laugh, I wondered if I wasn’t seeing in his eyes and face a hint or two of regret.
He and his sons have a pretty good working relationship, however; even as Jiro seems to gives his career almost a religious level of enthusiasm, there’s no major drama or stress on display, and everyone involved treats the others with respect. Jiro allowed his sons to finish high school but had them help him out at his restaurant instead of completing college. Regarding Jiro’s older son Yoshikazu, a common streetgoer hopes for Yoshikazu to continue his father’s legacy but notes that the eldest has no son or other ‘heir’ of his own to take over for him. It’s really sad to note that Jiro hasn’t always been able to ‘be there’ for his family, including what must be a very devoted wife, and that Yoshikazu doesn’t seem to have a family at all. (I don’t remember if Takashi, the younger son, does or not.)
The best sushi deserves the best ingredients.
The Tsukiji Market, which will be closing at some point in 2013 to relocate to a much larger facility, boasts a tuna dealer named Fujita who is every bit as selective about his purchases as Jiro could ask for. Using a technique developed by experience and aided by instinct, Fujita cuts off a piece of a tuna’s tail, checking the texture with his fingers. He gauges potential taste from this alone.
An additional segment featuring raucous tuna-buying is presented without explanation or commentary; it feels much more authentic for being bold enough to do so, even if this might be less inviting for inexperienced viewers who have little idea of what is going on. Note that there are some slightly bloody shots of fish being cut while still alive, and seeing them take their last flops (or seeing live octopi wriggle around in bags) is kind of creepy.
But the family can’t quite do all the work.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is shown to have begun taking on other apprentices, and while training is given for free, if I recall correctly, it also takes ten years to complete. Children who begin their training out of high school will be nearly in their thirties by the time Jiro deems their orientation complete. (It should definitely be noted that the slow-motion crafting footage in this part of the film looks amazing, and it fits the orchestral music perfectly.)
Apprentices at the restaurant first learn to squeeze exceedingly hot towels by hand, which is at least in part a disciplinary exercise; they then learn to cut and prepare fish and eventually are allowed to cook eggs. One apprentice’s egg sushi takes over two hundred attempts to get right, relative to Jiro’s exacting demands, but Jiro desires every ounce of quality needed to keep his dream alive and his customers coming back. (It’s kind of interesting how Jiro seems to be less strict with the various apprentices than with his sons, though. I found myself wondering if training them all strictly might have been best in the long run.)
And now comes the fun part!
“In order to make delicious food,” viewers are told, “you must eat delicious food.” Jiro, even at his age, is more than capable of exploring the worlds of taste and smell, even though he looks up to a French chef named Joël Robuchon and covets the latter’s acute senses.
The movie introduces viewers to Hiromichi, a rice dealer, who explains that he trusts Jiro to buy his rice, since Jiro actually knows how to cook it properly. This rice is cooked, step by step, under a complex series of instructions that requires careful timing to complete properly. Sushi rice is actually served at body temperature instead of being cold, and it is intended to be eaten immediately when it is served.
Jiro’s approach to a meal divides the main course into three “movements” as in an elaborate musical piece (which, fittingly, begins to swell in the background here). The first movement contains classical ingredients such as tuna and kohada, which is a fish known as a gizzard shad, and the initial course starts the meal off with light flavors, with heavier ones to come later. At this point the film simply unleashes a glourious onslaught of delicious-looking sushi dishes similar to but much more frequent than the ones showcased earlier. Each one looks ever more desirable than the last, and not being able to eat right through my television screen makes for an exercise in cruelty.
The second movement, described as being similar to an improvisation or a cadenza, contains fresh catches and seasonal items such as shima-aji, or striped mackerel. The ingredients here are arguably the most exotic of the meal, until finally they progress into the third movement, which includes sea eel (which is delicious in sushi, even if you don’t pay $300 for it) and more ordinary ingredients such as tamagoyaki (grilled egg). And just looking at all of it while listening to beautiful classical music produces one heck of an appetite.
There’s still room for other things of importance.
The film discusses the problem of overfishing and its negative effects on populations of various fish that were once easy to find. Several kinds of fish literally fade out of view onscreen, which makes quite a strong impression and can leave the viewer wondering whether these fish will be around for future generations to enjoy and to properly preserve.
A happier moment, one of the most delightfully human in the film, comes when Jiro for once takes a holiday to visit childhood friends in his old hometown. The old-fashioned architecture of the homes and of a Buddhist temple are gorgeous, and Jiro and his friends are more than happy to play jokes at one another’s expense (not in the temple, of course). Jiro makes an interesting reveal about his past and then discusses how there is more to life than simply studying.
In a rather concerning turn of events, he goes so far as to worry about whether his customers even think he looks senile, which seems an odd thing for a man who’s worked the same job for three-quarters of a century to be discouraged by. As it stands, however, Jiro is extremely successful and extremely famous; he’s not ready to give up, and Yoshikazu, Takashi, and the various apprentices look to keep the dream alive as well.
“Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.”
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a very focused movie about a very focused man. Digressions from the main subjects at hand–either Jiro’s family or his sushi–are infrequent, and they never disrupt the pace of the movie, even as its adherence to its main subject’s repetitive lifestyle grows the tiniest bit of staleness at times. Other than that, the movie is a film that I can happily praise for being gorgeous to look at while also remembering the humanness of its subjects. Sushi lovers will have more than enough visual delights to keep track of, but any moviegoer with a love of perseverance and hard work will find plenty to like on this plate.