I was reluctant to see David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) despite the ratings and ravings for the simple fact that I do not care for sushi. I really do not like fish in general. It sounds like a lame excuse, but there you go. And then my friend Tim said I really had to see it. He was fascinated to the point that he could not turn off the film. At 80 minutes, and having seen the un-Amazing Spiderman (2012) the day before, we queued it for streaming via Netflix.
At 85 years of age, Jiro sees no terminus in his lifelong pursuit in perfecting his craft: sushi. After years of hard work and innovation, this world renowned sushi chef operates a ten-seat sushi-only restaurant in a Tokyo subway, charges at minimum ~$300 a plate, has earned 3 stars from Michelin and is considered a National Treasure. Jiro is also the father of two sons, the younger one encouraged to set up his own sushi restaurant (a mirror image) while the elder (still) waits to succeed his father.
We were fascinated. We had no desire to look away—except the squid kind of grossed me out a second there.
The film begins with a fairly basic question, an initial premise: What is the key to Jiro’s success? “Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably,” Jiro Ono answers. And David Gelb goes on to tell the story of a man who has done just that, keeping a tight focus on his subject leaving some of his home life to our imagination. As Roger Ebert notes in his review, “There must be hours when he cannot be at work, but the film indicates no amusements, hobbies or pastimes. The idea of his courtship of his wife fascinates me: Forgive me, but I imagine that even while making love, he must be fretting about the loss of valuable sushi-making time.” This does not detract from the film, and if anything makes me appreciate Gelb’s focus all the more. Jiro could easily inhabit more than 80 minutes.
Gelb does not begin at Jiro’s beginning, he doesn’t follow a chronological narrative by establishing a timeline of how he got from there to here. But then, he isn’t doing a run-of-the-mill school report on a famous figure. Gelb is more interested in telling us a story, replete with complicated protagonists and complex themes. He also wants us to get an idea first as to why we should care from where Jiro has come. Gelb establishes first, his success, as well as a feel for how hard-working and enthralled by sushi Jiro is. One can not be separated from the other…and at what cost?
Jiro sheepishly admits that he was not around for his boys when they were young, relating a story about how one of the boys thought him a stranger. This changed, of course, as he also admits with a self-deprecating smile that he apprenticed his boys much harder than any of his others; which after hearing how it takes at least 10 years and witnessing the rigor with which they are faced?! Interviews with the staff, with the apprentices are dumbfounding. Gelb makes no judgments, but poses interesting dilemmas in the course of the film. For instance, the boys did not go to college and instead Jiro had them work for him. The eldest son Yoshikazu shares how awful the first years were, how he did dream of other things for himself even as he warred with practicality. Was/is there jealousy when Takashi, being the younger and having no prospect of taking over for his father, was pushed from the nest by a confident (and seemingly proud) father into a world of managing his own place even as he too deals with the shadow of Jiro, having to find a way to compete, knowing he “had no home to return to”—a method of perseverance stemming from what Jiro was told and taught at age 9.
Gelb sets Jiro visually against a changing world, considers his remarks as they intersect with a shift in culture and tradition. Gelb records Jiro in transit, in an urban landscape, finding a necessary backdrop that the restaurant cannot provide because at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro occupies his own other place where he creates the momentum, dreams the details, and has developed the philosophies that have made his restaurant apart. The constant sense of motion of journey also work to reflect Jiro’s continual improvement of self, of sushi, and service.
Gelb: “What I saw in Jiro was not just his culinary technique – not just his work. I want to show people that sushi is so much more than putting fish on rice. Jiro has created an art form. And his philosophy is to always improve your craft, to always look ahead to the future. That is something that anyone can relate to.” Jiro never rests on his reputation. He still mentally prepares himself before a dinner service and consistently strives to find the best ingredients, the best staff, and the best dishes to serve his patrons. (press kit)
Much of the success of Jiro Dreams of Sushi is in the employment of eloquent interviewees: Yamamoto (a food critic), Mizutani (a former apprentice), vendors, the staff, the sons, old friends. Gelb chooses his words, while still giving the impression of the off-the-cuff. Gelb also carefully selects his moments and when to play his hand, playing with chronology, pace, and placement of revelatory pieces. The trip home held interactions that revealed real vulnerability, as well as the resiliency of a good sense of humor. Jiro’s conflict as to what to tell school children is classic as he was a “bad kid”:
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. But if I said that bad kids can succeed later on like I did… all the kids would start misbehaving which would be a problem. Always doing what you are told doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in life.
I loved when Gelb took us to the fish market, to meet the vendors, to see that world. The occasions reiterated the importance of craft, of reputation and of familial legacy. Gelb also found places to address question born of the subject, like Fish Populations; an answer to which endeared Yoshikazu to me even more.
Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.—Yoshikazu
Yoshikazu. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is very much about the eldest son and heir apparent, too. Of course, we are curious how Yoshikazu fares as the son of Jiro, whose reputation is astounding and whose pursuit of his craft is relentless. Gelb doesn’t have to work hard to create an awe about Jiro, even with any flaws audiences may perceive in his parenting or his persistence. How then to work Yoshikazu into the story as something more than a son waiting to receive an inheritance already rife with conflict? In slow, loverly revelation, revisiting what we have learned, not only about who his teacher is, but who Yoshikazu has very quietly become.
Jiro has dreams of Sushi, but he also has dreams for his sons in whom he has worked as diligently to instill a desire to live a life committed to innovation and improvement. The documentary of Jiro as a master sushi chef is enthralling, but the documentation of his relationships with his son Yoshikazu (and Takashi) lingers equally, if not more so. This is a story of Jiro, inseparable in influence and obsession as father and visionary.
I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.—Jiro
recommendation: everyone and anyone, even those who do not care to read their films and/or eat sushi.
of note: the soundtrack using classical music is lovely, especially in light of how the use musical composition/movement in how Jiro comes to arrange his menu.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) a documentary directed by David Gelb; Produced by Kevin Iwashina & Tom Pellegrini; Edited by Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer; Cinematography by David Gelb; Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running Time: 81 minutes. Rated PG. Japanese with subtitles.
Roger Ebert reviews.