Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)

It takes ten years to make a good omelet

In an underground tunnel in Tokyo lies an eatery with only ten seats and an external toilet. Yet this is the only sushi restaurant to carry three Michelin stars. The 85 year-old head of this establishment is Jiro Ono, and every night he dreams up new creations.

This documentary attempts to capture the reason for his remarkable achievement. Jiro is shown as a perfectionist who lives for his work. A family life is irrelevant and his adult sons have been incorporated into his tiny, one-off sushi empire. Jiro creates sushi and only sushi. Surrounding trifles such as miso soup are seen as a waste of appetite. His creations are simple and made with only the best fish and rice, but the real secret to his success is dedication. When Jiro has individually formed a nigiri (the type of sushi with an oblong of vinegar rice topped with a variety of fish) and placed it on the customer’s plate, he watches with stern gaze how it is eaten. The average person would get very uncomfortable indeed!

It is this level of attention that typifies Jiro. When he notices the customer is left-handed, he will subtly change the angle of the sushi as he places it. Living under such a father can be grueling, and in his two sons hides a barely outspoken sense of drama. Like many Japanese, they bear their yoke in silence and with severity. The people in this documentary are ancient spirits. But Jiro is no tormented Ahab in his obsession; he tells us he has never been unhappy in the kitchen. The endless preparations and eternal climb upwards is his dream. It is here that the best sushi in the world is created.

The documentary is an ode to Japanese cuisine. A difficulty it struggles with is that Jiro’s story is told all too quickly. Developments do not occur, so the film is content with showing every facet of the process, one by one. A remarkable sight is the sale of fresh tuna on the fish market: it escalates into something of a tribal dance as dealers fight for the choicest catch. The film pulls this structure off with some success, but doesn’t manage to build to a climax. After a while your attention wanes.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a sharp portrait that fills a lean hour and a half. At the end you take away an appreciation for hard work and artisanal food, which in retrospect might not be so shabby.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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