Don’t let the harsh expressions fool you. The very serious looking men pictured above are the subject of one of the most palatable films offered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival: David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. On paper, a documentary about an aged sushi chef may not seem all that compelling, but the movie wins audiences with the same qualities as its subject: discipline to craft, and above all, a passion for doing what makes one happy. Check out the rest of the review after the jump…
Jiro Ono is an 85 year old sushi master, who has been cultivating his craft for 75 years. That’s right, 75 years. For nearly his entire life, his world has revolved around perfecting the art of preparing and serving sushi. He now holds the distinction of being regarded as the #1 sushi master in the world. Reservations at his 8 seat restaurant,unassumingly located in the basement of an office building, are booked over a month in advance, and meals start at about $300 per person. Jiro works tirelessly with his two sons and his apprentices to maintain and surpass a level of quality that has earned them the coveted Michelin 3-Star rating. The film provides some background and insight on their biographical lives, but concerns itself primarily with the day to day operations of the restaurant and, most importantly, the stoic discipline and passion necessary to make the world’s best sushi.
Jiro is a fascinating man to observe. Stone faced with his hands behind his back, he stands over his disciples, watching them prepare his ingredients. He often offers little more than a nod and a grunt of approval, or sometimes simply a dismissive wave and a curt instruction on how to fix something. But when he steps in to get cooking, he displays a grace and fluidity in his preparation and presentation that could only come from his decades of experience. Moreover, when he speaks about his food, it is with a sublime enthusiasm. His ability to eloquently explain the depth and purity of flavor in simple dishes is indicative of his innate love for what he does.
In addition to some biographical background on Jiro and his sons Yoshikazu and Takashi, the film also manages to venture outside of the restaurant for some intriguing looks at other facets of their business. There are interviews with a top food critic in Tokyo, as well as a former disciple with a restaurant of his own. However one of the most interesting parts of the film is a segment in which the camera crew joins Yoshikazu to visit the market where they purchase their fish. We see his vendors’ intense selection process for tuna, shrimp, and octopus. The frenetic energy of the auctions, masses of people crossing through shots, and enormity of the market is downright exciting. And the sheer volume of these delicious creatures, which will all be sold and eaten, is breathtaking.
More breathtaking than those images, however, is the film’s food photography. Although, perhaps it’s more mouth watering than breathtaking. Shot on the digital RED system as well as with a Canon 5D, the images and colors of the film are crisp and vivid, in spite of the fact that it is almost completely shot in natural light. Some of the kitchen shots are handheld, but for most of the prepared food, Gelb employ steadicam rigs to bring fluid movement to the frame. But again, the selling point on all of these shots is the meal. The shine that appears on a piece of tuna when brushed with vinegar is practically erotic. This is food porn at it’s best.
Unfortunately, there is a little bit to be desired by the end of this film. Jiro’s relationship with his sons is brought up, but not really explored. While they were growing up, their father would spend every waking hour working at the restaurant, making it impossible for them to see him. On days he would come home, sometimes they wouldn’t even recognize him. Yet they both end up working for him in his restaurants as subordinates, never given the chance to prove their own skills as chefs, because Jiro still does everything himself. And although Yoshikazu loves what he does, when asked what he wanted to be when was a young adult, Takahashi replies “an F-1 race car driver,” which in reality means, “anything but a sushi chef.” But there he is, running the annex restaurant on the other side of town. There is something in bringing up that kind of dynamic which begs deeper exploration, but does not come through in this film.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the kind of documentary from which viewers can experience vicarious thrill of some one truly in love with what they do. The process of this age old dining tradition is engrossing, especially when carried out by some the premier chef in the field. Watching the master cook his way through this movie may be the only chance most of us ever get to experience his art, but it is definitely satisfying. Just don’t watch it on an empty stomach.