Friday, March 9, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

The Father, The Son And That Oh-So Holy Sushi

Jiro Ono (left) and his eldest son Yoshikazu at Jiro's restaurant in Japan, in David Gelb's documentary "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi". 
Magnolia Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 9
, 2012

David Gelb's documentary "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi", which opened today exclusively in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, chronicles an octogenarian in Japan's Jiro Ono, a world-famous sushi chef who has been making sushi for 75 years.  Early on he tells us one of his many philosophies: "You must spend your life working to perfect your craft."  Though he insists he's not a perfectionist, he strives for perfection, and his rigorous, exacting work ethic has produced what patrons at his restaurant declare as Japan's, if not the world's best sushi.  No one has ever left Jiro's restaurant dissatisfied, insists Japan's renowned national food critic, who confesses he is intimidated every time he visits.

"Jiro Dreams Of Sushi", a symphony of food philosophy, industry, and feast for the senses, is a fascinating look at the spirituality and divinity of process, with food as its object.  This documentary allows us unfettered access to Jiro and his family of sushi preparers and restaurateurs; he persuaded both of his sons to skip college and help him with his restaurant.  They did, and both appear the better for it.  We see the tuna sellers, the relationships Jiro has with them.  We get a portrait of Jiro's upbringing and family history, of his successes and failures, and the drive, discipline and daily routine that enervates this principled, serious yet humorous and sweet man.

Jiro is extremely demanding of himself, and cuts a formidable, intense figure for his customers, standing inches from them as they eat his freshly-prepared delicacies.  He takes special note of the feng sui, if you will, of his patrons: specifically how they eat their food, which hand they eat it with, and how slowly or quickly they finish, timing each serving of a new round of sushi delicacies and doling out quantities according to the pace of eating and the sex of the consumer.  The undeniable artistry of process is the heart of "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" which always enraptures us with its touching stories and Jiro's principles.

I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary, and though I don't like sushi (owing to a horrendous experience with it years ago), watching Mr. Gelb's film and Jiro Ono's sushi made me want to eat it immediately.  A trip to the Far East may be in order!

Mr. Gelb's camera captures lush, mouthwatering pieces of sushi for our consideration, as if being paraded for a beauty contest.  There's a gentle suggestiveness (perhaps unintended by Jiro), even eroticism, in the way pink phallic slices of sushi are placed on a plate, swelling very slightly then contracting.  Jiro stokes them with a marinade brush in a precise yet sensual manner, as if quickly and delicately stroking a woman's leg or thigh. 

All of the moves Jiro performs with sushi look balletic; it's ceremonial and respectful food worship, with minimalism as the highest, most essential ingredient that punctuates Jiro's presentations.  I marveled at the unwavering standards Jiro sets, and Mr. Gelb allows an unfiltered glimpse of a master craftsman at work, painting and preparing the very part of life -- the only part of life beyond his sons -- that appears meaningful to Jiro.

While some scenes of tuna and fish meeting their fate -- including a brief shot of a small, live fish being eviscerated -- will turn off some viewers (and activists), there's an attempt, albeit fleeting, on the filmmaker's part, to get the balance right.  Jiro's eldest son Yoshikazu needs fish for his own restaurant but sincerely decries the wholesale slaughter of fish, especially the youngest ones, which Japanese trawlers have increasingly included in a wider net of capture. 

These types of moments described above, and another where huge slabs of cut up tuna are on display at a market, are the riskiest, and will alienate some.  Yet what Jiro and Mr. Gelb endeavor to show is the totality, intricacy and interdependence of elements that comprise the sushi journey to one's palate.  It's all in the process, and Jiro is nothing if not a study of dedication, tradition and transition.  There's a totality of immersion in family, food and franchise, as both ritual and oneness.  Mr. Gelb aspires to meet this same oneness in the way he crafts his documentary: a quiet, efficient, flowing piece at a slender 82 minutes, and he showers a hagiographic glow on Jiro in the film's climax -- the only false move that "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" makes. 

Punctuated by music from Philip Glass, including his wonderful orchestrations in "The Hours", music featured in the same-titled 2002 film, "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" excels as a triumphant, poignant spectacle of a wise, spiritual master food maker who knows that at 85 his work is not done.  "I couldn't retire now.  I've still got so much to do," Jiro says, and we know that he means every word.

"Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mild thematic elements and brief smoking.  There is also the matter of fish being eviscerated, with brief scenes of such that may upset some viewers.  The film is in the Japanese language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 22 minutes.

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