Director: David Gelb
I was a big fan of David Gelb’s Netflix television series Chef’s Table, and sang its praises when I reviewed it on this site, and since the show’s second series will debut in just a little over a month I though I would check out the documentary that started it all. In many ways Jiro Dreams of Sushi functions as a pilot for the chef-centric docuseries; the show showcases one world-renown chef per episode and is a look into the art and discipline of the man (or woman) behind the dishes. This documentary has the same style, framing, and feel as any of the episodes from the show, it is just a slightly longer version of it.
The titular Jiro is an octogenarian sushi maker in Tokyo, Japan. Over the course of more than sixty years making sushi, Jiro has achieved everything a chef aspires to: three Michelin stars, respect and admiration, the title of master in his field, recognition, and with this film also widespread fame and acclaim. And yet the man is humble and continues to be dedicated to his craft, with the simple belief that he can always get better and improve on his skills and handling of the ingredients.
Jiro Ono’s restaurant is unlike any other sushi restaurant: it is a small cramped space with only a handful of seats around the sushi bar. The restaurant only takes reservations, and the tasting menu takes less than an hour to be consumed. Jiro is a man of few words and allows the food to speak for him and the flavors to take the diner on a journey – the less spoken about the food the better, seems to be his mantra.
Just as in the television series, most of the talking is done by food critics and tastemakers, who fill in information about Jiro, the food industry and culture, and any other germane information as needed. Also depicted are Jiro’s two sons. The youngest has gone on to start his own restaurant, and his clientele is made up mostly of Jiro fans who find the patriarch too intimidating. The first-born, on the other hand, still works for his father, patiently waiting to take over the family business if and when the father decides to retire, but given that the (at the time of filming) 85 year old showed no signs of stopping (and now at 90) who knows when that will be.
The film also serves as a love story to fish, fishing, fish preparation, and the simple act of making sushi. An especially wonderful section of the film is dedicated to the Tokyo fish market, the largest fish market in the world, and to the vendors with whom Jiro has created a rapport and trusted working relationship. From the tuna vendor to the prawn salesman, each person has a fundamental role in the eating experience to be had at Sukiyabashi Jiro, and if any were to fail, so would the entire operation. The delicate and fragile system is quite beautiful, and when the film touches upon the dangers of overfishing and the modern mass consumption of sushi, the stakes are strikingly real and fearsome.
The star, though, of the movie is till the sushi itself. Each morsel is gorgeous and impressive in its simplicity. While it doesn’t appear so, because a piece of fish and some rice can look deceivingly facile, the complexity of each individual bite is impressive and worthy of praise and recognition. Jiro may not have been the greatest father or husband, he may have troubles that will never be dealt with, but he has also dedicated his life to the perfection of an art, and it can be said that nobody will ever reach the heights that this elderly man of humble beginnings has in his lifetime.