Jiro Ono may dream of sushi, but in his lifetime, the 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, arguably the most acclaimed sushi restaurant in the world, has achieved dreamlike perfection. Jiro radiates steely resolve if not outright confidence and as his work ethic is profiled in director David Gelb’s lyrical documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s not inappropriate to share the filmmaker’s enthusiasm while salivating at the sushi Jiro serves up in adoring high-speed slow-motion close-ups. The lone negative Rotten Tomatoes review (from the Times, no less) derides the film as insubstantial hagiography, something this writer finds disagreeable given the soft shoe but still considerable narrative Gelb builds while exploring Jiro’s giant shadow cast across the lives of his two sons, the first-born Yoshikazu and the younger Takashi.
Yoshikazu has labored at Jiro’s establishment as an apprentice since he was a scant 19, although one gets the feeling the expectation of continuing on in the family business has been there since birth, maybe even beforehand. The first-born son is certainly more outspoken than his father, a different generation untouched by war and the poverty Jiro knew from nine years old on, and admits freely to hating the job when he first began the training that would shape him into a world-class sushi master. Gelb spends little time on Takashi but it’s telling when the younger brother says people come to him (he owns a restaurant that is literally the mirror image of Jiro’s) because his father’s legacy is too intimidating. Dining in the presence of a seemingly ancient master is too much, so prospective customers head to the next most authentic alternative. Yoshikazu, meanwhile, contends with the simple and sad fact that in order for his work to stand out, it must not only equal but doubtlessly exceed his father’s.
Gelb’s skill as a documentarian lies precisely in what he doesn’t do - there’s no exploitation of this father-son narrative, no twisting of available footage into soppy drama. Instead, Gelb carefully demonstrates the methodology and code of conduct in Jiro’s kitchen, as well as the master’s relationships with experts who provide fish for the restaurant. The work is difficult, as it must be when perfection is promised and expected. Apprentices laboring in the kitchen demonstrate intense devotion to Jiro’s and the advice he surrenders as the would-be chef struggles to complete an unheard-of ten year training period.
The tidbits provided about the old man’s life are few and tragic - his father losing a fortune and turning to drink, WWII and the post-war work grind - it’s all enough to mark Jiro as a relic, but instead the culinary artist comes across as a lover of simplicity and the complexity found in repetition that granted him the ability to elevate work into art. Gelb delicately provides insight into Jiro’s relationship with his sons, the customers, even old classmates, and makes a case that this is one portrait that does not seek to inspire questioning or controversy but mutual respect. Jiro offers his full attention to customers and intensely observes their eating habits while adjusting portion size or position of the sushi. Tiny details, but telling too, for a worksmith who crafts tiny treasures.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Audio commentary with Gelb and editor Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer is a lovely diversion, touching on how the duo shaped the projects from conception to the terrific final product. Twenty minutes of Deleted Scenes offer some curios but largely serve to demonstrate how to effectively cut out content. Finally, the Masters portion of the extras presents a longer look at the Shrimp and Tuna experts we spend time with at the fish market, a welcome edition that profiles men whose quiet confidence parallels Jiro’s unwavering professionalism. A Sushi Gallery and the film’s Theatrical Trailer bring up the rear. A successful collection of, maybe not vital, but certainly illuminating extras.
"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is on sale July 24, 2012 and is rated PG. cooking, Documentary. Written and directed by David Gelb. Starring Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono.