What do you do when you run out of mountains to climb? It’s a pretty heavy question to ask no matter the situation, but even more so if posed by a movie with an official poster that, barring any other outside information, would make one assume that the film is nothing but an hour or so of a kindly grandfather describing all his favorite kinds of sushi. That no definite answer is forthcoming, even at the end the film, would tend to move a viewer to either think of the movie as unnecessarily bleak or uncharacteristically honest, depending on how cynical they are and whether or not they’ve had a bad day at work.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 documentary about 85 year-old sushi shokunin Jiro Ono and his 3 Michelin Star sushi restaurant, the Sukiyabashi Jiro. The film gives the unfamiliar a crash course on what authentic Japanese sushi is really supposed to be, from its history to the way its prepared, as well as delving into the life of a man who is arguably one of its most gifted creators.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautifully shot film.
To be clear, I’m no filmmaker, so I don’t really have the technical expertise to accurately comment on the cinematography. What I do know though, is that I found the film beautiful. The scenes of the chefs preparing the food, both in the kitchen and at the counter, as when a piece of sushi is lovingly brushed with a thin coat of soy sauce before being gently placed on the serving platter of the customer or when a section of fresh tuna is expertly sliced into the thinnest of portions, I found to be vivid depictions of a dance set to music that the audience can’t quite hear. Each shot overflows both with story and history, of which no amount of voiceover can adequately cover. Instead, you just sit there and let the visuals wash over you in waves, hoping at the very least, that a little gets left behind as it recedes.
Also, the music is fantastic.
The film’s pacing could’ve been improved to make everything more cohesive.
It’s not a flawless film, though. I feel the pacing could’ve been improved. The entire film, credits included, is just 83 minutes long. However, when I sit down to watch it, it always feels a lot longer than that. Entire sections could’ve been edited out to make the entire movie stronger and more cohesive. At one point, near the end, the film completely loses focus and goes on an extended homily about the dangers of deep-water trawling and net fishing. While environmental issues are important and should be addressed, their appearance in this film felt awkward and out of place, as if shoehorned at the last minute to please a focus group or corporate sponsor.
Jiro’s hard work has paid off with three Michelin Stars for his restaurant.
While Jiro Ono, at first, is ostensibly the main character of the movie, it quickly becomes apparent that he is less a person and more a natural phenomenon to those around him. Abandoned by his father at age 7, forced to find work by age 9, Jiro’s life is more akin to a folk hero’s than that of an actual living, breathing person. The man is a consummate workaholic, disliking holidays for the break in routine they require. His hard work has paid off, though, because it allowed his establishment to be awarded three Michelin Stars. It’s a ranking that, roughly translated, indicates that the restaurant in question’s food is of such consistently high quality that a trip to the country where it’s located is worth it just for a chance to eat there. Not even a serious heart attack in his seventies, one severe enough to require surgery and extended hospitalization, served to dissuade the old man from continuing to run his restaurant, the Sukiyabashi Jiro.
At one point in the movie, an expert is asked what he thinks the reasons are for Jiro’s incredible success. He lists several qualities that he feels were necessary for Jiro to reach the pinnacle of his profession. According to him, the perfect shokunin must treat one’s work seriously, have passion for creation, have a never-ending aspiration to improve their skills, have a preoccupation with cleanliness, is impatient with others, and refuses to collaborate with anyone else. While I have no doubt that these are all qualities that would help one become a better sushi chef, some of the characteristics named are obviously detrimental to becoming a good teacher and, especially, a good father.
One assistant was made to repeat a grilled egg recipe over two hundred times.
The film is at its best when the family drama is kept to a minimum. Aside from the scenes inside the kitchen, including one very interesting anecdote about an assistant made to repeat a grilled egg recipe two hundred times before getting approval for his work, the visits to the market offer a fascinating peek into their world. The exotic animals they use in the sushi as well as the unfamiliar cooking techniques and utensils they employ contrast well with the staid severity of the main characters.
It’s when the cameras shed a light on the inter-personal relationships between Jiro and his sons and assistants (both former and current) that the film stumbles. While it’s obvious that the director wants to paint Jiro as a lovable, if a little eccentric, sushi savant, the interviews tell a different story. The image that his relationships convey, that of an absentee father with a large ego and a selfish streak, clash with the kindly grandfather the Director wants us to believe in and fall in love with.
In one key scene, Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, is asked if he’s envious of his younger brother, Takashi, for managing to escape from beneath their controlling father’s thumb. It’s telling that instead of answering the simple question with a straight yes or no, Yoshikazu instead goes on a lengthy explanation about the expected role of the eldest son in Japanese culture.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is far from perfect, but its beautiful in parts, interesting in others, and is definitely worth the watch
The latter quarter of the documentary, much like Jiro Ono himself, has problems letting go and moving on. Viewed through the lens of a coherent narrative, the film, while interesting and entertaining, lacks direction and vision in the final push. In one of the last scenes, Jiro is made to visit his parents’ graves, a ludicrous decision that was obviously pushed by the producers to introduce a semblance of a conclusion to their film. Even Jiro himself comments about the inanity of the event, wondering aloud what he’s even doing there when his parents had nothing to do with his life after he turned nine. The whole sequence feels forced and insincere, a shame because the first half of the movie was incredibly well done. The ending meanders here and there before finally petering out, while sloppy from a storytelling standpoint, it does seem almost thematically apt for this movie. Who knows, maybe that’s the point.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is far from perfect, but its beautiful in parts, interesting in others, and is definitely worth the watch, especially the first hour. Just be aware that every indoor shot will make you hungry, and every single one outdoor will make you wish our cities looked like Japan’s.
- It’s amazing how Japanese fish markets are so remarkably clean compared to our palengke. Also, it doesn’t seem to smell bad at all either (judging from the lack of people in the background with permanent bitchface).
- There’s even a scene where Jiro the octogenarian shares a meal with his (supposed) classmates from first grade, and then they exchange detailed stories about each other from that (ancient) time period. While I’m not saying for sure that those grandmothers and grandfathers were making things up, they were for sure making things up. I’m in my mid-twenties and I can’t even remember my class section in 6th grade.
- I still don’t understand what the many dining booths in Jiro’s restaurant are for. In the film, they make it clear that only eleven people are served at a time, with all sitting at the bar (provided they’d made a reservation at least a month before) so Jiro can serve them personally. What’re the booths for then, exactly? Who do they sit there?