Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) movie poster

director David Gelb
viewed: 08/10/2012

An American documentary about a famed Japanese Shokunin, Jiro Ono, whose small restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in Tokyo is the only 3-star Michelin-rated sushi restaurant in the world.  Jiro is 85 years old and has been plying his trade for three quarters of a century.  His sushi is acclaimed to be the best in the world by local and worldwide media, and director David Gelb steps into his kitchen and world to tell his story.

What is most fascinating about the film is how Jiro’s sushi, work ethic, and aesthetics are so traditionally Japanese.  The sushi he makes is sometimes defyingly simple, though other aspects of his craft show the refinement of years of practice and development.  Whether it’s how long a certain fish is marinated (four hours or six), how thin to slice a particular cut of fish, the specialization of the very best rice, prepared properly and kept ready (“at body temperature”) to the delivery to the diner to be eaten right then, immediately, in its perfect moment of preparation.  It’s still essentially a cut of fish on a hand-molded body of rice largely.

Still, watching this film, you’ll never want to eat sub-par sushi again.

The practices and aesthetics that Jiro has taught to his two sons and to many other apprentices, is that of laborious practice, striving for perfection.  While they work with their preferred specialists from the Tokyo fish market to get the best possible fish for their customers, the cultivation of knowledge and experience are things that have been worn into their beings by dedication and rigor.  One apprentice recounts the story of how he made egg sushi, hundreds of times over months of efforts that never met the standards set by Jiro.  Then, the day that he succeeded, his egg sushi was considered “good,” how he wept.

The story of Jiro, the poverty of his youth, his hard work that has led to his success, which he has offered to and commanded of his two sons, is more perhaps of a classic 20th century Japanese world, a post-war climate where opportunities, family traditions, and need shaped the lives of this family.  The family narrative is less fascinating than the pure quality of watching the chefs work, the economy of movement, the deft handiwork of the knives.  It might be trite or reductive to compare the art of sushi to that of banzai trees or haiku, but there is within it, a something of a truly unique character and aesthetics that is so purely Japanese.

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