Film Review: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

August 30, 2012

Ohhhhhhhh folks. Have I got a tale for you. Last night I had a vision. I saw my future. I am supposed to drop everything and surrender my life as a young American male struggling to find his place in the workforce. I am going to hop on a plane to Japan, and I am going to Jiro Ono’s little business in the basement of an office building in the Ginza district of Chuo, Tokyo, and I am going to ask to be his apprentice. It will be a ten year commitment, but it will be worth every moment. Sure, the first year will just be wringing hot towels for the customers, and I won’t be able to even attempt to cook my first Tamagoyaki until year ten, but…Jesus Christ. How could you not want to work for a boss who demands that level of perfection, after which I could return to America and immediately be one of the greatest chefs in the country (granted the quality of the fish would suck by comparison, but what does THAT matter to the greedy, unrefined average American palate?)? If you are reading this and still have no idea what I’m talking about, go watch Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. It’s streaming on Netflix right now.

The documentary offers a history of Jiro Ono, sushi master, 3-Michelin-star recipient and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro. His restaurant seats ten, there is no bathroom, it is cash only, and a tasting menu of 20 pieces of sushi starts at over $350. The meal takes less than fifteen minutes from start to finish. The film follows Jiro on his quest to perfect the art of sushi, and his elder son Yoshikazu’s “struggle” to live up to the legacy of his father. I use scare quotes around the word because he’s most definitely not struggling, nor does he ever really give the impression that making sushi is not his dream. Maybe he doesn’t exactly dream of sushi like his father did, but he is easily a master chef with an incredible wealth of knowledge who is more than capable of taking over his father’s business. The film also focuses on former apprentices (who become known as shokunin, or sushi chef) who have started restaurants on their own after working for Jiro, as well as Jiro’s younger son Takashi, who runs a restaurant that is a mirror image (literally!) to his fathers, but with cheaper, and with a more relaxed feel.

Almost as impressive as the footage of the restaurant and the meticulous fish preparations are the scenes that occur in and around the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which has been referred to as the best seafood market in the entire world. Jiro no longer travels to the market every day — Yoshikazu has taken on that role now, as he’s but 50 and his father 85 years old — but the dealers who buy and sell the fish that Jiro and his son cook are almost as interesting as the film’s protagonist. The tuna guy, who can tell by touching each fish’s meat how it will taste, apparent almost as careful and diligent as the chef. Of course, that does not compare to watching the apprentices massage octopus by hand, or seeing how the fish is charred, or watching the process of roasting nori seaweed by hand, or…hell, just looking at the sushi everyone eats on their lunch break is fascinating.

The documentary was made by a guy called David Gelb, who’s father is the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and who is friends with renowned food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who appears in the film as well. The documentary was supposedly conceived while watching BBC’s Planet Earth, and the way that Jiro and his food are filmed is no different than those beautiful, super slow-motion scenes of nature that appear on the BBC series. It’s a relatively brisk film (81 minutes) and easily worth every minute. I think I alluded to the only weakness of the film earlier when I mentioned the somewhat-manufactured feel of the Yoshikazu story, as it never appears as if he’s scared of continuing his father’s legacy. He does not seem to struggling with the notion that one day he alone will be responsible for maintaining reputation of the business.

As someone who only recently discovered sushi (as in, was nauseated by the idea of it until about 5 years ago) I was completely enraptured. Enough so that as soon as I finish this review I’m going to pack my things and sell all my belongings to pay for my airfare to Japan. You guys, I found my calling, I’m supposed to be Jiro’s apprentice. I’m supposed to be the next great American shokunin!

Or, you know, I’ll wind up like the guy in Enter The Void. But either way at least I’ll have gotten to visit Tokyo.

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