Featured Film Reviews
Jiro Dreams of Sushi – Review
by Miguel Douglas on April 15, 2012
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of 85 year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar. At the heart of this story is Jiro’s relationship with his eldest son Yoshikazu, the worthy heir to Jiro’s legacy, who is unable to live up to his full potential in his father’s shadow.
Art comes to fruition through countless forms. Whether it’s viewed in a magnificent expressionist painting, a riveting classical music arrangement, or even a sculpture depicting the intricate nature of the human body, art is certainly visible all around us—even if we notice it or not. It is even expressed through one of our most basic necessities as human beings—that of food. Like any other form of art, food can be explicitly thrown together without much care or handled with the utmost attention to detail, resulting in something that is truly special to not only to the individual partaking in eating the dish, but also the dish’s creator as well. Director David Gelb’s film Jiro Dreams of Sushi—with this being his directorial debut—tells a delightful tale of one such creator and his legacy, focusing on the careful crafting of one of Japan’s most famous dishes, sushi.
Those familiar with the Japanese notion of shibui know that simplicity devoid of unnecessary elements is highly valued within traditional Japanese culture. Whether this is viewed in art, décor, and pertaining to this film, the considerable variety of sushi, the formal etiquette that coincides with such food is viewed in a minimalistic, clean, and often times geometric fashion. Working as a documentary on the life of legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono, the film follows Jiro’ delicate preparatory routines and his intricate but simplistic views on sushi and life itself. There is artistry to making sushi, with Jiro representing it as not simply a job for him, but an extension of himself at the very core of his being. To Jiro, creating sushi takes a lifetime of experience—with the film mentioning that his apprentices spend roughly 10 years just learning to prepare the basic ingredients for sushi dishes before they actually get to create them. The film conveys this dedication to the craft rather effortlessly with a plethora of scenes showcasing the tedious yet calculated process that goes into each sushi delicacy, all gorgeously shot in mouthwatering detail. Whether it’s the finesse of Jiro’s hands in shaping the raw tuna over its bed of rice, or the gentle massage of octopus in order to make its texture softer, those who are fans of sushi are certainly going find these scenes immensely pleasurable.
Beyond the film’s utter fascination with all aspects of sushi, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is also a film focusing on the strong bonds that form between individuals within the culinary world, looking at apprenticeship but more importantly that of family. Through this familial approach, we see the trials and tribulations of his two sons—his oldest, Yoshikazu, and youngest, Takashi—as they both question how they are to live up to their father’s mastery of the craft after he retires, or inevitably, when he passes away. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a film about sushi, this is true, but it’s also about the living up to a family lineage and the fears and anxieties that go along the way in successfully continuing that heritage. While the film doesn’t focus as much on this aspect as one may hope, it does add dimension the circular notion of owning a popular family business, all the while uncertain of what the future may hold. While Yoshikazu and Takashi may be worried about what tomorrow brings, Jiro is shown as one removed from worrying about such things—he’s always one step ahead of them, having planned out their futures long ago in order to be completely absorbed in his craft.
This is no more visible through food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who is viewed as our interpreter for Jiro’s appreciation of sushi throughout the film. Not only does he effectively and vividly communicates the importance of Jiro’s role as a master of sushi, but also highlights the artistic nature of the craft as well. The film perfectly exemplifies the latter in a poignant scene where Masuhiro relates Jiro’s creation and presentation of his sushi dishes as akin to an elaborate musical concerto. There is a performance to be found in Jiro’s mastery of sushi, with Masuhiro guiding us through the movements of the meal as to us listening to the crescendos and decrescendos of a musical composition. The dynamics of his craft are vividly relatable through this metaphoric analogy, with Masuhiro painting a fanciful picture of Jiro expressing his philosophy on life through the exquisite nature of his practice.
Gelb paints Jiro as an enigma of sorts—we learn very little about him as a man outside his life as a world-renowned sushi chef. It’s almost akin to the legends of lore, where not very much is known about the individual’s life before the magnificent deeds they’ve performed—in this case, creating some of the most delectable sushi dishes in the world. Those looking to learn more about Jiro as a person may be disappointed that the film doesn’t spend nearly as enough time on his status as an individual, instead allocating much of its time towards his involvement in his restaurant. Jiro is viewed constantly working to better his skillfulness as a sushi chef—he is his work, and he completely understands this. Everything revolves around sushi to Jiro, so much that some viewers might even perceive him as obsessive when it comes to the finer details of creating sushi—but therein lays the beauty of the film. Gelb is showcasing that creating something as simple as sushi, is not as simple as one would think. It’s takes a special talent to bring about the fullness of what food has to offer, and like any other practice, takes years to improve upon—with Jiro himself humbly admitting that even he hasn’t found perfection within his work.
With Gelb’s handling of Jiro Dreams of Sushi with the utmost care akin to Jiro’s handling of sushi, the film succeeds in looking at an art form that has becoming increasingly commercialized with each passing year. The film briefly discusses the use of modern techniques of fishing that have often led to over-fishing, a practice that is detrimental to the sustainment of Jiro’s craft. With the film pointing out the abundance of fast food-type sushi stores cropping up throughout Japan—and to a larger extent, the world—the meaning of sushi as a traditional art form has become awash with a capitalistic priority to replace quality with that of quantity. In a sense, the film portrays Jiro as a curator to a lost and endangered art, showing the care and respect as to glorify its importance as a national tradition. Gelb is well aware of this importance as well, allowing us the view the crucial elements that culminate towards the creation of single sushi dish, with Jiro’s family and staff being the proprietors towards upholding such a time-honored custom. While we may not learn much about Jiro as a person, Jiro Dreams of Sushi remains a quiet, meditative film on the dedication to one’s calling and the family issues that surround that calling, with the 85 year-old Jiro remaining an astute expression of shibui at its very finest.