A review of David Gelb’s documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.
One sentence synopsis: wise and adorably turtle-like sushi chef proves that raw fish is in fact an art form.
Housekeeping: The film, directed by David was released in 2011 and runs for approx. 1hr 23mins.
Rating: Several giant tuna fish/10 (seriously, who knew tuna were that big)
Usually, I am of the opinion that documentaries need to lead somewhere; there has to be some form of narrative, something exciting or disastrous or mind-blowingly wonderful has to happen to the subject otherwise it’s just footage of people doing things that no one cares about right? Well, in the case of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, no.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it follows then 85-year old (he’s still going strong at 91) master sushi chef Jiro Ono and his three Michelin-star winning restaurant. And that’s it. Of course there are subtleties and vague sub-plots which we’ll get onto later, but really that’s the bulk of it. We’re just watching a man make sushi over and over again. And it’s BRILLIANT.
First of all, the sushi itself; watching the iridescent pieces of tuna and mackerel being thinly sliced is oddly mesmerizing (even for a vegetarian). And watching them being deftly and swiftly assembled with delicate hands and placed upon a tiny plate in Jiro’s bizarre restaurant is akin to watching a master painter do his thing. If nothing else, please just watch this film for the shots of sushi making and I assure you that you will not be unhappy. Additionally, the film’s exploration of the Japanese fish markets prove insightful (if in parts a bit gross) and the chefs’ opinions on the over-fishing rife in Japan add a brief moment of ethical awareness.
Secondly, the idea of the restaurant itself, which seats less than ten people, and at which customers must make a reservation a month in advance, stay only for fifteen minutes and pay 30,000 yen (£200) each is weirdly glorious to witness. The attention paid by Jiro to each of his guests, adjusting the portion based on gender and the position of the food based on what hand the customer uses to eat, makes watching other people eat fish completely entrancing. If there was ever a God of food, Jiro is it. The behind-the-scenes moments where we hear from the apprentices’ tribulations – making egg sushi 200 times before it being even just acceptable, training for 10 years before having all the necessary skills and massaging a bloody octopus for 50 minutes every time it needs to be served is either ridiculous or wonderful or both, I can’t decide. However, it is clear that Jiro operates on a cruel-to-be-kind basis, and watching how others react to this makes up a large portion of the film.
The ordeals of the apprentices lead us on to Jiro’s sons, both of whom were coerced by their father into abstaining from university and becoming his apprentices instead. Now aged 50, his eldest son Yoshikazu is still working under his father instead of being allowed to take over the business, and the youngest has started his own, more casual, sushi restaurant, making for an interesting family dynamic which the film follows throughout.
Whilst watching Jiro himself, it is evident that he is passionate about his work, which he has been doing since the age of nine when his father left the family, and has an admirable work ethic, However, one can’t help but wonder if there are other reasons he rarely takes a break from his work, and what problems this obsession with his craft brings to him and those around him. At one point in the film, he explains that he could not be a father, as he left for work at 5am and would not return until 10pm. Therefore it is hard to see how he maintained any sort of family relationship with his sons and wife, questions which remain mysteriously ambiguous throughout the documentary. Jiro’s impoverished childhood as the son of an alcoholic father who he did not see after the age of seven provides an intriguing background exploration and serves to make the chef’s journey to master sushi maker even more beautiful.
Character study into a passionate chef and those closest to him, artistic portrayal of the Japanese sushi trade or insight into the horrors of over-fishing, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is well worth a calmly enrapturing hour and a half of your time.