David Gelb, 2011.
Ebert: Three Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%(!) Fresh
As we left the theater, I said – loudly, so everyone could tell I was having a Very Intelligent Insight about a movie – “You know, it’s really not about sushi.” I was goofing off, of course. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is very much a documentary about sushi. Like most good documentaries, though, it transcends its subject matter to give you something to think about beyond the specialized preparation of rice and seafood.
The “Jiro” of the title is the owner and chef of a strange sushi restaurant in
Tokyo with an international cult following. It has ten seats and at least six full-time employees, sells out reservations a month to a year in advance, and has no menu. You eat only sushi, and only as it is served to you in an order determined by Japanese tradition, Jiro’s innovative sequencing plan (“the order of the meal is planned like a concerto,” enthuses a food critic), and whatever the best available fish at the market happened to be that day.
Jiro is 85. Orphaned at seven, he has been working in sushi for 75 years. He does not like taking days off. His hope and goal, expressed throughout the movie, is to continue mastering his craft – making yet more and more perfect sushi – until the day he dies.
The older of his two sons, well into his 50s, is second in command at the restaurant. His position is like that of the Prince of Wales, required always to be in proper form but never allowed to rule. The younger son has a restaurant of his own – an eerily exact mirror image of his father’s establishment. Why the mirror image? Dad is left-handed, and the son is right-handed, ergo the perfection of the father’s layout needs to be flip-flopped for maximum efficiency.
If you enjoy food porn,
Elizabeth, you will get plenty of lovely and tantalizing shots of exquisitely made sushi (which, as Mrs.5000 observed, cast the theater pizza into a less-than-usually favorable light). You’ll also tour a surreal Tokyo fish market, watch the mildly amazing spectacle of a daily tuna auction, and meet men whose entire careers are devoted to the pursuit of excellence in one very specific commodity, who say things like “your first impression (of a tuna carcass) is very important” and “What would be the point of selling them my best rice? They don’t know how to cook it properly!”
The other things that the movie is “about” are the proper place of vocation in one’s life, the line between (or the overlapping of) the pursuit of excellence in one’s passion and simple obsession, the nature of leadership and apprenticeship, and the value or necessity of hard work. The relationship between Jiro and his eldest son is an ephemeral story line tying the film together; we immediately develop some ideas about what that relationship must be like, and then we have to revise them continually as more information comes in. It adds just enough human interest – a very subtle note of drama – to hold the rest of the film’s elements in place.
So, it’s not really a movie about sushi. Except, of course, it is. Very well filmed and edited within a documentarian’s budget, it is a terrific film for people interested in sushi, restaurants,
Japan, or humans.