There’s a long list of films that celebrate the pleasures of eating -- Babette’s Feast, Tampopo, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night to name a few -- and as someone who has a deep appreciation for both food and films, I was looking forward to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi coming to theatres in the Bay Area this month.
The original inspiration for the film, according to filmmaker David Geld, came from the “frequent family trips to Japan while growing up” and “ultimately led to his fascination and admiration for the art of making sushi.”
“After college, I saw BBC’s “Planet Earth,” and immediately thought that it would be great if someone made a movie like that about the world’s best sushi chef. I always felt that sushi is the most visually creative food. And the sushi chef is the ultimate showman.”
Gelb met the three-star Michelin chef, Jiro Ono, during a tour of Tokyo’s finest sushi restaurants with food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto (who’s also featured in the film.) Upon eating “the most delicious sushi of his life,” Gelb knew that “this man would be the subject of the film.”
While the documentary has many mouth-watering close-ups of delectable nigiri waiting to be eaten, the most alluring aspect of the film is Jiro’s philosophy on the meaning of human existence. His sushi is the artful manifestation of the wisdom he's attained over the course of a long, fruitful and arduous life, and he hopes everyone finds their own personal obsession: "Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work."
He’s a shokunin, or a master of his profession, to the highest degree. With his bald head and wizened visage, he's like a fastidious monk who adheres to a strict daily routine. Jiro boards the subway from the same spot every morning and rarely takes a day off. He watches each customer very closely as they dine in front of him, with an intense yet inscrutable expression, to observe their reaction to his handiwork. They only serve sushi; no appetizers, no sake, reservations are required at least a month in advance and the menu is decided by Jiro on a daily basis. And Jiro is so all-consumed by his creativity that he even dreams of sushi ideas at night -- hence the title of the film.
Although Jiro is revered as a living national treasure by the Japanese, his perfectionism leaves him never completely satisfied with results. He always feels that his next dish can be a little better and so he continues to try and find ways to improve his cuisine. He’s passed on this relentless drive to his two sons, Yoshikazu (who works with him at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his small, 10-seat restaurant that’s located in the Ginza subway station) and Takashi (who runs a second location in the Roppongi Hills neighborhood.)
Yoshikazu plans to assume the leadership role at the restaurant someday, which may be in the near future although his 87-year-old father shows no signs of slowing down. The pressure he feels to uphold his father’s rigorous standards is quite evident, but he hopes to sustain Jiro’s legacy despite the difficulty in maintaining such a high level of artistry. Yoshikazu is fortunate that he’s directly taken on the role of working with an inner circle of valued suppliers at the Tsukiji fish market -- and the restaurant’s rice dealer -- who share the same devotion to high quality as they do. These relationships ensure he’ll continue to get the best tuna, eel, wild shrimp and other seafood that’s available.
The film also touches briefly on the history and burgeoning popularity of sushi, sustainability issues and the complexity of family life -- particularly father-and-son relationships. Jiro’s father’s disappearance from his life at an early age forced him to acquire his hardcore work ethic at the tender age of 7. And perhaps this abandonment compelled him to keep his sons close by his side; instead of allowing them to attending college when they expressed a desire to go to school, they obeyed his request to begin their long apprenticeship in sushi.
My lone quibble with the documentary was the heavy reliance on Phillip Glass compositions in the film’s soundtrack, which has long been over-used by fellow documentarian Errol Morris. And one other caveat: you may be tempted (as my friends and I were) to eat sushi afterwards, but after being exposed to Jiro’s fine attention to detail, you may find your next meal might not measure up what you just watched onscreen.