Food in Films: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

18 Apr

The Japanese term shokunin is more than a foreign word. It is a foreign concept in America, a land of instant gratification. This is arguably even more pronounced in the culinary world, where diners use Instagram to snap photos of their meals, every culinary school graduate fancies himself a ready-made chef, 30-minute meal cookbooks sell like hot cakes, and cupcakes are a national treasure.

David Gelb’s classically scored documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) peels back a few of the proverbial onion layers to show us what it means to be a shokunin, which loosely translates to “master artisan.” Jiro Ono is the celebrated octogenarian and subject of the film. He earned a coveted three Michelin stars for his 10-seat, toilet-free sushi bar in the Ginza shopping district. (The Michelin Guide of yesteryear was infamous for rewarding chefs for expensive restaurant upgrades, including toilets.)

Accolades aside, for a man who dreams of sushi, and has chased perfection for more than 70 years, everything but the quest is inconsequential. It may sound cliché, but here is a man who truly does it all for the love of his art. He begrudges holidays–describing them as “too long”–and only ceased making his daily treks to the Tsukuji fish market after a heart attack at age 70.

As fascinating as Jiro himself are the behind-the-scene players in his restaurant. Take his 50-year old son, Yoshikazu, Jiro’s spitting, more youthful image, who patiently apprenticed with his father at age 19 and has assumed the role of his understudy ever since. (He also inherited the fish market duties after Jiro’s heart attack.) Yoshikazu is asked in the course of an interview whether he is envious that his younger brother, who also trained under Jiro, has already opened his own restaurant. Yoshikazu is matter-of-fact in stating that this is the course expected of the older son–to take over his father’s establishment.

Now cut to a former Jiro apprentice who gives voice to our all-too-human thoughts; namely, that Yoshikazu is in an impossible situation because he’ll never live up to his father’s reputation, and that he will likely face an uphill battle running the restaurant once his father either retires or dies. All this despite the fact that diners and Michelin critics are unwittingly eating Yoshikazu’s sushi. (Jiro later generously attributes 95% of the day-to-day work to his son and team of apprentices, although he is quick to say that he trained them all in his fashion.)

Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, acknowledges that he can’t command the prices of his celebrated father (a meal starts at 30,000 yen, or roughly $350 per person, at Jiro’s restaurant), but that some customers prefer eating his father’s style of sushi in a more relaxed setting. It seems the elder Ono has a habit of staring sternly at the diner as he eats the pricy meal, that on average, takes about 15 minutes to consume. We also hear from a former apprentice, and a few current apprentices in various stages–one who has almost completed his decade-long term and a few youngsters who are just beginning.

Every artist needs his tools and palette. For Jiro and his son, they come from the expert vendors at the fish market, some of whom fashion themselves mavericks with their unconventional ways of separating the wheat from the chaff. My favorite cameo, though, is the persnickety rice vendor, who cackles with Jiro as he relates his refusal to sell certain varieties to Hyatt because the chefs employed by the foreign corporate giant won’t know how to cook them. Of course, we don’t learn it, but Jiro has developed a special method to maintain the optimal (room) temperature of the essential sushi ingredient.

Because you eat with your eyes first, there is simply no denying the beauty of the fish in this film. The complexity here lies in the preparation of the ingredients. This isn’t American-style sushi with 50 nauseating components. Meticulously chosen fish and rice are carefully treated to draw out maximum flavor and texture. With a deft hand (Yoshikazu compares the proper gesture to squeezing a chick), Jiro puts them together like puzzle pieces, and then brushes them with soy sauce before proudly placing each before the diner. Indeed, they do look like small canvases–the colors so vivid, the flesh so perfect and jewel-toned. We are treated to everything from fatty and lean tuna, to octopus (massaged for 45 to 50 minutes in order to make its flesh optimally supple), sea urchin and shrimp. After seeing this sushi up close and personal, flashes of conveyer belt and grocery store rolls are particularly offending to the eyes, especially in light of the sustainability issues that they occasion (and that are briefly touched on by the film).

Only sushi (20 pieces arranged in movements to mimic a classical music composition) is served in the establishment–no appetizers or anything else to distract the diners. Jiro is so attuned to detail that he memorizes seating arrangements so as to serve women more petite bites (gender stereotyping? perhaps, but he finds that this way, he keeps the diners in syncopation as they eat), and he makes mental notes of the left-handed so that he can position their sushi accordingly.

Despite the obvious reverence of the depiction, Jiro as a subject maintains quite a bit of mystery. He was forced to leave home at age 9, after his father’s business crumbled. There is no specific mention of his mother. He does make a return trip toward the end of the film to see some of his village childhood friends, who jokingly describe him as a bully. He visits the shrine of his parents with Yoshikazu. In a candid moment, he asks Yoshikazu why he cares for his parents now when they never cared for him, and then laughs.

Who knows how long Jiro will carry on. This film certainly lends him an air of immortality. The joy he finds in his work is eternal: “I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.”


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