Food has been the subject of many films, easily becoming a genre onto itself. From grand documentaries to humble narratives, the subject of food has been explored with infinite detail at the cinema. I know from personal experience that a film can make me laugh, cry, or even leave a theatre feeling the desperate craving for a piece of egg sushi. Food films can do more than just awaken our appetites though, as food is as complex a subject as humanity itself. Filmakers take to food as a subject so often because the craft and intricacy of food is something people take to as a defining passion. This past Memorial day, which also happened to be my birthday, I was treated to the screening of a documentary about a tenacious perfectionist and the food he toils over. David Gelb’s new documentary film, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“, adresses the maxim that the food that we eat and the care we put into making it, makes us who we are.
Jiro Ono has made sushi his life’s work, honing his craft for over 70 years. Running away from a troubled childhood, Jiro started making sushi as an adolescent apprentice. Now at the seasoned age of 85, his dedication to sushi is all encompassing, his pursuit for culinary perfection has grown to legendary status. Still working at his small sushi counter in the bowels of an otherwise ordinary Tokyo skyscraper, Jiro’s restaurant seats only a handful of guests who have waited months on a reservation list. His stern approach to sushi is not only an iconoclastic tribute to simplicity, but also a living testimony to the dying art of tradition.
Jiro has been honored with three Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide to Japan, in the film a food critic notes that Jiro did not earn these stars from just his vision and mastery alone, but for the consistency of them. The Michelin judges had commented that no matter how many times they visited Jiro’s counter, the experience was always nothing less than perfect. A meal at Jiro’s starts at $300, and when sitting across from Jiro, sushi is rapidly served and eaten in a manner of minutes. Meals sometimes last less than fifteen minutes, but a lifetime of artistry fills every bite.
Always working tirelessly, Jiro is a master of his universe, he notices and orchestrates every aspect of a guest’s experience. Jiro carefully assigns all his guests seating, “male, female, male, female”, notes if they are left or right handed, considers each guests idiosyncrasies and adjusts the food to match. Unnoticed to his guests, Jiro has taken a lifetime to respect and tailor details that the most sensitive would often ignore. When Jiro makes sushi, it serves as a welcome foil to others’ myopic vision of the simplicity of food.
David Gelb takes great care in his film to explore the inner workings of Jiro’s kitchen, family, and honorable employees. The film shows Jiro’s pursuit and respect for the freshest of fish, displays of mouthwatering examples of Jiro’s sushi, and even follows Jiro on a rare visit to his childhood home. This all creates a rather straightforward documentarian portrait of a man, yet this film’s success centers on Jiro’s own faultless pursuit of his only love. Jiro is no longer a living man, he is only the food he creates; Jiro has lost himself to the food he creates.
Jiro’s own sons are molted shells of the man himself. His eldest, Yoshikazu Ono, now regularly serves sushi at Jiro’s counter but is still just a 50 year old apprentice to his father. In the film, a former apprentice to Jiro points out that Yoshikazu could never raise to the culinary excellence of his father even if he was significantly more talented, such is the weight of Jiro’s own legacy. Yet Jiro later admits that coincidentally, every time the Michelin judges ate at his counter, it was Yoshikazu who served them, not Jiro himself. This is the scope of Jiro’s unflinching vision, the methods he has created for the preparation of sushi have transcended the man and become something greater, an immortal tradition.
Late in the film, as Jiro is reluctantly away from his restaurant, reconnecting with some long unseen childhood friends, another side of Jiro emerges. This was the heart of the film for me. Jiro seems distant, quietly disconnected from the childhood that he emerged from, he seems empty. On a visit to his parent’s grave, Jiro’s son nervously laughs as Jiro jokingly laments that he dosn’t know why he should leave his parents respects when they left him nothing. But that is just it, Jiro is nothing without his love, his sushi.
It is rare to see someone so committed to their art these days that they forsake themselves to pursue it. This film paints Jiro as a tragic artist who has completely lost himself in his art. It seems so commonplace for the unaffected these days to go through life without even a monochrome of respect for their job or craft. Although to many Jiro might seem tragic, I left feeling elated that there are still persons out there who ardently give themselves to ideas greater than themselves. People who feel humbled before their art, before their food, before the things that they dream about.
UPDATE: Chef, author and television personality, Anthony Bourdain, seems to be a big fan of sushi legend Jiro Ono. Well known for his biographical culinary exposés, such as Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain has broken into new territory and will soon release a fictional graphic novel. According to this USA today article, Bourdain’s Get Jiro, stars a take no prisoners sushi chef named (you guessed it) “Jiro”. Pick up a copy and see Bourdain’s hard boiled “Jiro” slice and cook his way through the seedy culinary underbelly of a near future Los Angeles. Get Jiro can be purchased at Amazon.com or better book stores on July 3rd!