Fishy Business by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beguiling and beautifully crafted documentary focusing on the life of Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono. At 85 years old he has been working with sushi since becoming an apprentice at the age of 10, and is now the chef patron of his own 10-seater sushi restaurant. Despite its inauspicious surroundings in a Japanese subway, the tiny Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant is now world-renowned and holds three prestigious Michelin stars. The first feature-length film from documentary maker and Japanophile David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is much more than a bland, tasteless examination of Jiro’s sushi-making skills, exploring his childhood, family relationships, environmental issues and the contradictions between traditional Japan and its modern, fast-paced consumer society.
Set amid stunning montages of sushi-making set to classical music, the narrative begins through the eyes of food writer Yamamoto. Claiming to have more experience than anyone else of Tokyo’s sushi restaurants, he is unrestrained in his praise of Jiro’s sushi. Never disappointing, Jiro’s meticulously-honed skills matched with the very best ingredients create exquisite raw fish parcels that are second to none. The menu varies on a daily basis depending on the catch of the day at the early morning fish market and is priced upwards of $300 per person, as one ill-informed enquirer is swiftly told. Reservations are taken up to one month in advance and the restaurant is the preserve of wealthy local businessmen and curious well-to-do foreign visitors.
Jiro boards the train at the same point on the platform every day. This small insight into the master’s self-discipline and control is magnified a thousand-fold by the culinary expertise he displays behind the sushi counter, where he wields a sharp blade and shapes his edible gems with his long supple fingers. Despite his advancing years he shows no signs of slowing down. His only concession has come since he suffered a heart attack at the age of seventy: his fifty-two-year-old son and heir apparent has taken over his morning run to the fish market. Yoshikazu visits the best fish suppliers in Tokyo, each one an expert in the qualities of their particular product and each one mutually respectful of the master, Jiro’s, unmatchable skills.
Jiro admits that he was almost a stranger to his sons during their childhood given his commitment to his craft and the number of hours he spent perfecting his skills at the restaurant. Despite his exacting nature, he is disarmingly open about his personal life and perhaps a little regretful of the blinkered extent of his youthful commitment. He freely admits he was harder on his sons during their apprenticeships than on other non-related apprentices. Jiro’s second son fled the nest to set up his own branch of his father’s successful restaurant in a different part of the city. Literally a mirror image of the original, Takashi seems more relaxed than his father behind his own counter. It is the elder son, Yoshikazu, whose position is clearly an uncomfortable one. He admits he had expected Jiro to have retired a long time since; his lot is a combination of patience and pressure. Yamamoto, the food writer, claims that when his father is no longer with us, Yoshikazu’s sushi will need to be twice as good in order to retain the restaurant’s reputation and exacting clientele.
Jiro is a man of contrasts. When talking directly to the camera he swings between revelatory moments. He stakes his claim to his position as he discusses the exquisite palate of fellow chef Joel Robuchon, yet we also see him laughing and joking, revealing a more likeable side to his stony professional exterior. As the film draws to its conclusion, Jiro reveals his own supreme moment of umami, when the balance of flavours is at its most perfect, as he serves a full meal to ten expectant diners. Serious and concentrated throughout, his mask slips as the last of the twenty courses draws to an end. Explaining that he tailors each piece of sushi to the gender and even the dexterity of his customers, it becomes clear that it is not just technical culinary knowledge that makes the great man great, but a love of the dining experience as a whole.
A fascinating documentary with just the right balance of fact and personality, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a wonderful insight into a microcosm of Japanese culture. Just make sure there’s a good quality sushi bar around the corner for a post-film snack!
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is released in the UK on March 11th 2013