What's to become of rich if exacting traditions as generations pass? More importantly, what's going to happen to the sushi? David Gelb's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi touches upon questions both philosophical and quite tangible in presenting 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono to the world, or at least those few who might see this film in one art house or another. Mr. Ono has long enjoyed a measure of fame in his native Japan, where he has been dubbed a national treasure. He's also gotten the attention of discriminating diners from around the world. His small, 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, operating from the unlikely location of a Toyko subway station, was given a 3-star rating by the Michelin Guide. Such a rating is apparently meant to imply, among other things, that an establishment thus rated would justify travel to a country for no other reason than to sample it's fare. All who partake of Jiro's sushi-only menu would seem to agree without reservation, whether they have arrived from across town or the other side of the world.
For now, there seems to be no need to worry about the sushi. Sukiyabashi Jiro (his restaurant) is a going concern, maintaining its three Michelin stars and drawing eager lovers of sushi from Japan and abroad (Anthony Bourdain is one of many of have praised Jiro as the world's greatest sushi chef). The octogenarian Jiro had one major health setback around the age of 70, a heart attack which now keeps him from the rigors of the Tokyo fish market. In his stead goes eldest son,Yoshikazu. Beyond that concession to age, the father's endurance leaves the middle-aged Yoshikazu in something of a Prince Charles position. He remains in the shadow of his world-famous parent, but seems to regard Jiro's eventual retirement or passing with ambivalence. We later find out from food critic Masuhiro Yamamto that it was actually Yoshikazu who prepared the food which won the restaurant its Michelin rating, a testament to the skill accrued from working with his father for decades. But Yamamoto also says that he's seen customers abandon a restaurant as soon as a famous chef is gone. This leaves Yoshikazu in his uncertain position.
For now, the gourmands keep coming. There is an amusing exchange when a young man comes in to inquire after the menu, the pricing and the need for reservations. "Do you have any pamphlets," he asks. "We don't have pamphlets, we have business cards," he's told, matter of factly. But he is given a couple of business cards, told how soon to make reservations and given some idea what his meal might cost, 30,000 yen (about $370 dollars at current rates of exhange). "For a fast eater, a meal there might last only 15 minutes, making it the most expensive meal in the world," notes the food critic, Yamamoto.
The young man is also assured that Sukiyabashi Jiro serves sushi exclusively. The menu is minimal in that sense. So too is the sushi, if deceptively so. We see Jiro add the final touch to sushi rolls, burnishing a simple tuna roll with soy sauce before placing it in the middle of a square, colorfully-lacquered plate. The sushi is often just that, a roll of tuna, some other fish or even octopus around a core of rice. It's both the quality of the ingredients and the care that Jiro and his hard-working staff take with them that would seem to set his dishes apart. In speaking of octopus, Jiro laments its often rubbery texture when served. To soften the meat, he initially put his apprentices to work, massaging the octopus for twenty minutes or more. These days, the rubdown lasts 45 to 50 minutes. Jiro never rests - nor do the tired hands of his apprentices. Equally compulsive attention is given to the preparation of rice, the chef and his staff seeking new ways to add pressure to the cooking and then serving it at body temperature.
Mr. Gelb is credited as cinematographer as well as the director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. His camera gets us to all the right places, but the perspective is betimes that of one who has little sense of personal space. We hover close enough to Jiro's venerable old head to count the liver spots on his face. This is not particularly enlightening. Gelb does much better when he satisfies his curiosity, observing the restaurant's many rituals of preparation, or when he simply trains his camera on the great chef from a reasonable distance and lets him go about his work or express his philosophy of life and cooking, essentially one in the same. This is rather more enlightening.
Fortunately, with Jiro or even Yoshikazu, Mr. Gelb can't go too wrong. The same can be said for the food critic Mashuhiro Yamamoto or the handful of food vendors almost exacting and interesting as the chef they're supplying. Jiro speaks of the honor of doing his job well. It's an attitude that seems to be shared by the men who supply his tuna or other fish. The rice guy seems happy just to hang out with Jiro and yuk it up a bit, although even this easy-going businessman admits to having turned down the Hyatt hotel, who wanted him to supply their rice. All of these men are clearly loyal to Jiro, all perhaps elevated by their association with him. Throughout Jiro Dreams of Sushi there is an observance in both a literal and figurative sense of people who value their work and are driven to do it well. And like much of what we see, whether it is the aging Jiro or the market plagued by shrinking supplies of fish, there is also an underlying awareness that these things, these traditions may not be long for this world.
The fish market sequences are some of the most entertaining in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, lively counterpoint to the measured perfection of Sukiyabashi Jiro. There are the aforementioned vendors, as discerning in the fish they buy as to whom they sell it. We're also taken to a tuna auction, a fascinating spectacle in which the normal fast talking of the auctioneers is accompanied by charismatically rubbery movements as they make their indications as to what great slab of tuna is for sale and who is prevailing in the bidding.
The Tsukiji Market, the world-famous main fish market located in the eponymous Tokyo district, is itself a kind of endangered species. The governor of Tokyo hopes to move the centrally located market elsewhere, raising concern not only with the pollution at the proposed site for relocation but the effect the move might have on businesses like Jiro's. Wherever it might be located, it's hard to watch the vast operation, not to mention the non-stop procession of sushi at the restaurant (the standard meal consists of a stomach-bulging 20 pieces) without considering the issue of sustainability. Fortunately, Yoshikazu does address the problem. Certain kinds of shrimp or fish he notes, once available in abundance are hard to come by on a given day at the market or simple gone entirely. Mr. Gelb accompanies these sad pronouncements with the not-terribly-subtle device of showing the disappearing seafood literally dematerializing from one of those glossy plates. Thanks Mr. Director, we got it. Yoshikazu makes the admirable it not very realistic point that the demand for sushi and other fruit of the sea can't be allowed to decimate natural resources for future generations. What's not spoken is the amount of mercury that might well reside in those large tuna and other fish, another nagging consideration that you might find inescapable if you have seen Louie Psihoyos' The Cove, which deals with the dark side of Japan's fishing and whaling industries.
Even with such considerations at hand, Jiro seems no less fascinating or admirable for the manner in which he goes about his work. There's no false allurement in the film's title - the man does actually dream of sushi, obviously living and sleeping his work. When the shokunin (master) Jiro says things like, "I feel ecstasy all day. I love making sushi," it doesn't come across as empty hyperbole. Similarly, more philosophical pronouncements like "Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work," or "You have to fall in love with your job," might seem strident or simple-minded if Jiro didn't so blatantly live the words he speaks.
Yamamoto admits to being nervous on first visiting Jiro's restaurant. It seems to be a common reaction to eating before the master. Even after many visits, Yamamoto - who seems as much Jiro's press agent as critic at times - owns that he's still nervous when he comes to the modest-looking restaurant. It's an awe that director Gelb seems to share. He gets considerable mileage just letting Jiro expound on his philosopies of cooking and life. But a few-well placed questions might have done much to flesh out the partial biography that Jiro shares without any great indication of reticence.
We know that he was set adrift at a very young age owing to the failure of an ineffectual father. Forced to fend for himself, Jiro has done so with a vengeance. And while he acknowledges that he was probably not a very good parent, so often absent, there is no mention of the mother of Yoshikazu and Takashi (the younger son, who runs his own sushi restaurant, a well-regarded and seemingly more laid-back version of his father's establishment). Nor is there mention of Jiro's mother. When Gelb accompanies Jiro an Yoshikazu on a visit to Jiro's hometown, the father and son take flowers to a cemetery. This perhaps will be the wife and mother, one might assume. But, no. After Yoshikazu waters some rather hopeless looking flowers, Jiro says, "I don't know why I take care of them. They never took care of me." It's obviously a reference to his family, or some portion thereof, which he gives with a rueful laugh.
The specifics remain unclear, but the outline of Jiro's life is obviously one of a man who made a life for himself out of necessity. He was fortunate enough to channel that determination into something he could do well and even love. The chef is rather like a first generation immigrant, for whom single-minded determination is a survival skill. It's non a mindset easily abandoned once in place. The question is always what happens with the generations that follow, when complacency sometimes sets in. Jiro's sons are unlikely to surpass their father, but they do seem likely to continue the same work at a respectably high level. What's going to happen after that his less clear. The food critic Yamomoto's expresses sadness at seeing no young apprentices in Jiro's restaurant. But there are few young people willing to commit to a 10 year apprenticeship whose first months might consist of nothing more than the handling of hot towels. Even when allowed to prepare food, the fun hardly begins. One apprentice recounts the experience of making tamago, an egg custard for sushi, more than 200 times before receiving Jiro's approval. "I was so happy, I cried," he says.
With so much working for it, the brief 81-minute run time of "Jiro" actually seems slightly excessive. David Gelb, making his first theatrical feature, could perhaps benefit from a longer apprenticeship himself. He overplays his hand at times, reverting to slow motion and pulsating interludes of Philip Glass minimalism. There's profundity here; no need to hit us over the head with it any more than it would be necessary to scrawl a sign that reads "great sushi this way" near the entrance to the Ginza subway station in which depths Jiro goes about his art.
A contemplation of the passage of time, the eclipse of tradition and our overly-plundered natural resources are all likely if you spend those 81 minutes with Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But mainly there is all that enticing sushi. Like any good food film, "Jiro"might well inspire hunger, even if you come to the theater with the benefit of a filling meal. But before you make a beeline to the nearest sushi bar, you might consider the quality of what you have just seen and think twice about where you next dine. You might even consider saving for a trip to Tokyo.