By Gordon Foote.
Jiro Ono is eighty-five.
Every day, he gets up, rides the train to his 10-seat restaurant, situated in a Tokyo basement, and makes sushi. He has followed this routine, day-in-day-out, since the war.
Jiro makes sushi.
He does not make noodles.
He does not make yakizkana.
He does not make tempura.
He makes sushi. Everyday. In his 10-seat, triple-Michelin star rated restaurant, in a Tokyo basement.
For over half a century, Jiro has given his life to the goal of perfecting sushi making. His every waking moment and, as the title suggests, many of his sleeping moments, are consumed by the desire, the need even, to improve; to refine his process yet further to create the perfect flavour. So sought after are Jiro’s skills that one must book three months in advance for a seat at his restaurant, and the cheapest meal offered costs in the region of ¥30,000(£200).
It is safe to say that the man at the centre of David Gelb’s 2011 documentary is a fascinating figure. An inspiring man whose dedication and on-going pursuit of quality draw the audience in and keep them gripped for the full 81 minute running time. Having set foot in a Japanese restaurant only three or four times in my life, and not being a particular fan of sushi, it’s difficult to believe just how absorbed in Jiro’s story I became; agog at the man’s unrelenting attention to detail, watching his constant self-critique and training of his staff (apprenticeships at Jiro’s last for ten years; the first few months of which, you merely wring out hot towels. Until that skill is mastered, you are not permitted near the food). It’s bizarre to think that such a one dimensional character, a man completely consumed by his love of sushi, could be so incredibly interesting to watch!
Though the obsession, the passion, is endearing, instilling a sensation of respect and awe, it simultaneously forces one to wondering what he has missed out on while focusing so intently on sushi. He freely admits that he was not there much for his two sons, describing himself as “…more like a stranger” than a father. Also, the documentary gives no time at all to the woman behind the man. Jiro’s wife is conspicuously absent, as are any scenes in, or even references to, his home. It serves excellently to keep the focus on the food, but does paint a rather sad image of children who could not compete for their father’s affections with raw fish, and a woman who, for all intents and purposes was a single mother; a sushi-widow, as it were.
There are a couple of scenes where Gelb decides to follow Yoshikazu, Jiro’s eldest son, for a short time; one such scene sees him selecting stock from their network of trusted vendors at the fish market. It is a weird and wonderful scene as we glimpse other people who are totally consumed by their chosen careers, and yet, even then look up to Jiro, always hoping to find that piece of fish which will make them say, “Ah…that is worthy of Jiro”. The spectacle of a Japanese tuna auction is not to be missed.
Throughout, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is entertaining and well constructed, not over-staying its welcome. Gelb’s direction pushes the players to the forefront and gives them space to tell their story without competing for the limelight. Each scene is presented well and timed excellently, never being allowed to grow stale before moving on. The documentary paints a vivid picture of the life the world’s best sushi chef has made for himself, and the amount of work it takes to get to that level. He is the best and as, food critic, Masuhiro Yamamoto laments towards the film’s conclusion, “When Jiro retires, or the inevitable happens, Sushi may never reach that level again…”.
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