The relationship between food, film and fiction is long and stale, often focused solely on the trials of culinary sustenance. Very rarely do movies depict captivating taste, and even that tends to get lost within the wider context of the plot. Given that the scope of flavour is conveyed in the first sentence of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb’s account of Japan’s most beloved set of fish-crafting hands, it seems fitting that only the medium of documentary and one of the world’s most misunderstood foods could finally achieve this replication of a taste sensation, and make it even more important than the human sacrifice needed to bring it to the plate.
Jiro Ono is perhaps the most unique chef in the history of humanity. At 85, he’s the oldest Michelin Guide 3-Star cook, and his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, with its limited seat capacity, restrooms and location at a subway station in Ginza, Tokyo, stands strongly as one of a kind. Prices at the restaurant start from ¥30,000 (£240), and customers are in and out in around fifteen minutes. All strange, almost unimaginable even, until you get to grips with the food in question.
Through interviews with Jiro, his master sushi-maker trained sons, apprentices, fish merchants and a food writer we learn the profound dominance this wholly civilized piece of food has on the chefs who devote themselves to it. The testimonials and praises to this frail, twice nearly retired national treasure also make it clear that he is so adept to his craft that his eldest son can now never surpass his legacy, even if he was to surpass his father’s skill.
Guerrilla ‘to-camera’ conversations and intense, high quality slow motion shots of the chefs at work are integrated seamlessly with the aid of a fantastic classical score. We are incredibly lucky also to see the kitchen inside and out, with every type of sushi made and named for those unaccustomed. Strangely, actual techniques of the preparation, from the toasting of the nori to the light brush of wasabi are left unexplained (even though the latter punctuates every minute of the film). This isn’t a demerit; rather it creates a sense of appetizing mystery, leaving a lingering hunger for the viewer to learn more.
Structurally the film documents the shokunin (craftsman) workaday habits, the heavy burden placed upon his sons (one of whom owns his own restaurant), the daily grind of the fish market as well as forays into Jiro’s childhood home and concerns over the current decline of good fish. The concurrent theme however is not only the never-ending struggle that is Jiro’s hunt for perfection, but the overpowering and maddening ardor that engulfs everything his skilled hands touch, for better or worse.
It’s almost impossible to criticize anything; in fact the only flaw comes with both convenience and time. Some of the best documentaries, such as Wasteland or Dear Zachary, are all the more powerful because they end on moments of triumph or tragedy for their subjects, capturing the impossible way fact can appear like fiction. Jiro Dreams of Sushi doesn’t really feel like it’s moving towards a natural emotional climax. There’s a scene at the end where we finally see a full meal served (in a fashion described beautifully as a symphonic crescendo), but really it feels like a small, unimportant snippet of Jiro’s life, but such is…life I suppose.
Given Japan’s soaring number of Michelin Stars, it’s remarkable that we’ve hardly before seen such an intense and emotional portrait of one of its chefs as in this harrowing tale of talent and trials and top notch table cuisine. Its attention to detail and insight would make any Life of Brian fan wonder: what would the man who was to be stoned to death for saying “that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah!” have shouted had he tasted one prepared by the great Jiro sensei?