Movie review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

How a man’s life and practice is as artful as the food he creates

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” was nominated for the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan.

“What is delicious?”

The 81-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” directed by David Gelb, on one of Japan’s most esteemed sushi chefs, Jiro Ono, starts with this question.

“What is beautiful?” “What is good art?” “What is good music?” These are subconscious judgments of taste that we constantly encounter in daily life but seldom stop to define. The film explores this simple question that has driven the fascinating career of 85-year-old Jiro, who was crowned one of the oldest living three star Michelin chef, and one of Japan’s “living treasures” – a term for those individuals certified as “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties”.

The elegantly made film is set in Jiro’s humble 10-seat sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. Run by Jiro himself, his eldest son Yoshikazu and a few other apprentices, the restaurant takes bookings at least one month in advanced, and it is revealed halfway in the film that guests even go to the lengths of booking seats one year in advanced. Can you imagine? All that effort for a meal! A 20 course meal at that. But the film carries on to explain why top grade sushi isn’t the sole attraction.

Ingredients of Success

Jiro’s perceived formula of success comes across deceivingly simple.

“I just keep doing the same thing everyday” – a Shokunin or master of a profession. In Japan, the average “maturation” period of a sushi chef in training is usually counted in decades.

He is enterprising and experimental. “I never stop dreaming of how to make better sushi.”

He has a strong work ethic, and a former disciple says he would never miss a day of work unless there is a funeral he has to attend.

He is a rebel. He says, “When I was in school… I was a bad kid. Later, when I was invited to give a talk at the school, I wasn’t sure if I should tell the kids that they should study hard… or that it is okay to be a rebel. I wasn’t sure what advice to give the kids. Studying hard doesn’t guarantee you will become a respectable person. Even if you’re a bad kid… there are people like me who change. I thought that would be a good lesson to teach… Always doing what you are told doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in life.”

But most importantly, he has a group of extremely dedicated, talented and loyal helpers assisting him. I felt the film is really about the solo journey of one very hardworking and talented man, it is also about those who labour in his shadow – the seafood supplier, the rice trader – the quintessential gatekeepers of his success ,because there is no point having great culinary skills if your raw materials are not premium to begin with.

Jiro (C) and his team. His eldest son Yoshikazu is third from right.

The documentary takes you through the different grades of sushi and the processes involved. Besides its educational nature, the film also contains several important messages.

It is about the slow but certain impacts of environmental damage. The film’s protagonists realize that the supplies of bluefin tuna, an essential component of Maguro sushi, have been decreasing in recent years due to overfishing. Studies have showed that the fish, which may grow up till 3 metres in length and 450kg in weight, faces possible extinction in a few years, but this chilling fact hasn’t faze Japanese lawmakers, who opposed a proposed export ban on the endangered species in 2010. It hits audiences with a certain saddening pathos, that in spite of Jiro and his indomitable spirit, the fate of his art is in the hands of a higher being – god and nature. Destiny is up to you to shape, but only up to an extent isn’t it?

Maguro sushi. The fatty belly meat of blue fin tuna, known as ‘toro’ is one of the more expensive items on the menu, prized for its taste, texture, and scarcity.

It is about sacrifice. Face it, every individual only has 24 hours a day. And since Jiro has immersed himself so wholeheartedly into perfecting his craft, he has sacrificed time with his family. He has probably missed seeing those precious years when his boys were growing up.  Wryly, Jiro recounted a rare occasion he returned home to sleep, and how one of his sons ran to his wife asking who is this strange man and what is he doing in their house?

It is a reflection about the deep seated patriarchy that runs in traditional Japanese livelihoods. We hardly see a woman in the film until Jiro’s wife is introduced, and even so her screen time is rather diminished.  Read about an article on a female chef-only sushi joint which just opened its doors in Tokyo. Watch the tuna auction in Tsukiji fish market, I found it almost ritual-like, with the chanting.

It is about kinship. Jiro and Yoshikazu are almost mirror images of each other, but their mindsets and personalities are worlds apart. Jiro lives life simply by travelling on a subway, Yoshikazu drives a Suzuki and professes his childhood dream was to be a Formula One driver. Jiro is the voice of authority and confidence in the film, Yoshikazu on the other hand has far less credit given to him. I can’t help having some sympathy for Yoshikazu, when it is revealed that his younger brother has already gone solo and started his own sushi business in Roppongi. The camera flashes to Yoshikazu, sitting alone in an empty corridor near the restaurant, drying seaweed on a charcoal stove. We see the discrepancy, and we sympathize with the pressure he had to withstand of living up to his father’s legacy. As a food critic explained, “Even if Yoshikazu’s standard is on par with his father, people will still feel he is inferior. To be considered equal to his father, he has to achieve twice as much.” But the film ends with a twist, a reprieve to Yoshikazu’s under representation. When Michelin taste graders first visited the restaurant, Jiro wasn’t even the one serving. Yoshikazu did everything.

What the movie isn’t about

In my opinion, the movie strangely isn’t about passion as much as it is about sheer focus and perseverance. We can’t even be sure if Jiro became a sushi chef because he fell in love with it. We just know he left home at tender age to be an apprentice for a sushi chef, and made perfecting the craft of sushi making his life’s work. It could be for all we know, a move made to help his family make ends meet, as Jiro once indicated that his family conditions took a tough turn after his father’s career slump as a boatman.  We know with some certainty that Yoshikazu isn’t in it out of pure passion. He mentions it is his duty as the eldest son, to continue his father’s trade, in Japanese culture.

In conclusion, the breath taking documentary is really less about the food and more about the art. The art of living, cheesy as it sounds, apparently does exist. I recently happened to pick up an intriguing book by Richard Hamilton called “Food for Thought and Thought for Food”. It revolves around Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, the first chef ever to be invited to participate in an international art show Documenta 12 (Kassel, Germany), in 2007. To find out how food and art intersect, stay tune for the next blog post!

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