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Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

April 3, 2012

9/10 Shokunin Warriors

A portrait of perfection and a foodie’s wet dream.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about Jiro Ono (no relation to Yoko, I think). Jiro Ono is 85-years-old, he’s generally regarded as the greatest sushi chef that ever lived, his restaurant only has ten seats in it, and it’s located in the back alley of a Tokyo subway station. If you want to eat at Jiro’s, you have to reserve a spot one month in advance, put at least $300 on lay away, and he will stare you in the face the whole time you’re eating. He has two sons: the youngest of which has his own sushi joint across town, the oldest of which has been training for over 30 years to take over his dad’s mantle. He’s had the exact same routine for almost 75 years, that’s how he likes it, and business is good.

So the real question here is, what would compel one to drop such a ridiculous amount of dime on raw fish over rice? If you don’t like the stuff to begin with, you might be better off with those 300 boxes of mac and cheese you’ve been saving up for, but even if you just got into California Rolls, you will come to understand. This is no ordinary sushi joint, this is Sukiyabashi Jiro we’re talking about. This isn’t just rice, it’s rice that only Jiro is allowed to buy because only Jiro knows how to correctly prepare it. Think that’s just any old tuna that Jiro made special just for you? You bring shame upon your family with such ignorance. That’s the highest quality tuna on the market and only Jiro can get it. Appetizers? Dessert? Kill yourself. When you eat at Jiro’s, you don’t pay for food, you pay for greatness. Get with the program.

For Jiro, it’s not about how much it costs to make it or how much you’ll spend to eat it, it’s about the craft, a craft that he’s devoted every ounce of his being to. From the moment he first speaks, he tells us that the day you choose your career, you must fall in love with it and devote your life to perfecting it. He is a living example of practicing what you preach, his restaurant has earned a coveted three-star rating from the folks at Michelin, and he has been declared a living national treasure by the powers that be in Japan. That’s what’s up. But the thing about Jiro is that while everyone else is worshiping at his altar, he’s knocking himself down a peg, continually searching for new ways to improve and convinced that the summit will always be out of reach. He’s humble, he gives most of the credit to his staff, and it’s one more thing to admire him for.

Whether it be a musician, an athlete, an artist, or a sushi chef, I have always been awestruck by those who have mastered anything in life. Jiro’s profession is an extension of himself, like it comes without trying, and it’s something to behold even if you can’t taste it. I could watch him work all day, as torturous on my appetite as that would be.

But I think the biggest reason I found Jiro so fascinating ties into how different, yet similar, our values are despite our wildly different upbringings. I was always told that the world was my oyster, that I could be whatever I wanted if I studied hard and tried my best, and if life threw me a curveball, I’d always have the support to help pick me up by my bootstraps. This is not how Jiro grew up. This line of child rearing, according to Jiro, is why we have so many failures in the world. This is a guy who was abandoned by his parents at seven, worked his ass off to survive, and continues to work his ass off past retirement because, to him, life is an excuse to better oneself. These are the lessons he imbues in his sons, that perfection is the goal and failure is not an option, and from them he expects a life of unwavering dedication. The world is their oyster, as long as it’s sushi.

I don’t know about you, but I hear something like that and my eyebrow shoots up. If I was Jiro’s kid, I’d take that as an invitation to start chain smoking, tattoo up, and start a J-pop band called Fast Food. You’d almost feel bad Jiro’s sons, but you really can’t since they’re not bitter in the least. They love what they do, they never once pine for a life they could have had, sushi is as much of a keystone to their lives as it is to their father’s. And from Jiro’s perspective, what father doesn’t want their kid to follow in their footsteps, to achieve greatness beyond what their parents were capable of? The relationship amongst the three of them and the inevitability of Jiro’s passing is so universal and just so interesting from both a familial and cultural standpoint, especially as an American who had it comparatively easy growing up.

At one point in the film, an associate of Jiro’s says that everyone today wants an easy job that gives a good salary and a lot of free time, and that’s why Jiro is as great as he is. In that regard, I wholeheartedly agree. The man is a living testament to the fruits one’s labor in a world where unwarranted entitlement is commonplace, and if you want to study under him, it’s a ten-year education. More people could use a kick in the ass like the one Jiro gives to his sons, myself included. Then again, it’s hard to see myself leading a life like Jiro’s. Not because of how demanding it is, but just following the same daily routine at the same job I’ve had for, literally, a lifetime. Folks, as much as I love writing these reviews, I cringe at the idea of being remembered as The Movie Guy 50 years down the road. Maybe I just need to find my calling, and maybe it’s just the difference between Japanese and American cultures, but as much as I’d love to try everything under the Sun before my clock runs out, there’s something to be said for anyone who uses each minute to its fullest.

And the same can be said of Jiro’s whole staff. Watching his apprentices slave away on egg sushi for the 200th time, massage a dead octopus for 50 minutes straight, and keep everything so damn clean you could eat the countertop for dessert, it’s like Zen in motion. One of those movies you just want to sit back, soak up, and forget about the subtitles (not that subtitles are ever an issue). Part of the credit goes to director David Gelb’s beautiful cinematography that perfectly mirrors the simplicity and complexity that goes into Jiro’s food, but who am I kidding, it’s no accident this stuff looks as good as it does. This is art that happens to food, not the other way around.

Reading back on what I’ve written, it probably sounds like Jiro Ono is a hardass. While there’s a good deal of truth to that statement in respect to his work ethic and parenting, the impression I came away with is that Jiro is happy. At 85, he is proud of his sons, he is proud of his craft, and even though he still longs for better taste buds, he has enjoyed his long life in ways that I can only hope to. It’d be one thing if wore his achievements like a feather in his cap, but that’s why Jiro is worthy of this documentary, one that had me smiling and salivating right to the final course.

The narrative structure may be a bit all over the place, but it comes together regardless. It’s a story of fathers and sons, of true fulfillment that’s riddled with wonderful, poignant moments and filled with wonderful, poignant people. It’s a story that’s going to stick with me for a while. They say that if a restaurant gets a three-star Michelin rating that it’s worth flying to that country just to eat there. Even if I didn’t like sushi, even if I didn’t watch the Food Network more than is probably healthy, I’d say this is impetus enough for me to start planning my next Japan trip.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012 7:53 am

    Thanks for the review. This doc is coming to Miami pretty soon and I am looking forward to it.

    • April 3, 2012 9:45 am

      Thanks! Definitely check it out and let me know what you think when you do!

  2. Paragraph Film Reviews permalink
    April 3, 2012 8:00 am

    This sounds amazing. Really hope it gets a decent showing in the UK. Definitely gone to the list. Jiro sounds like a badass, and that’s just from your review.

    • April 3, 2012 9:59 am

      Yeah, it was great, really different, too. Deserves to start making the rounds internationally and hope you get to check it out if it does. And Jiro is very much a badass.

  3. April 6, 2012 1:31 am

    Fun review, but very informative. The trailer interested me (and inspired my salivary glands to go on hyperdrive) but reading about what it offers makes me excited to watch it.

    When I do finally get a chance to see it, it’s most likely that I will be compelled to visit a sushi buffet right after. Excuse me while I call for a reservation.

    • April 6, 2012 9:57 am

      Thanks! And I know what you mean, felt like Pavlov’s dog watching this movie.

      And that’s exactly what I planned on doing as well. What a commercial whore I am.

  4. Ryan permalink
    April 6, 2012 10:16 am

    “Think that’s just any old tuna that Jiro made special just for you? You bring shame upon your family with such ignorance. ”
    Great stuff right there

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