Tucked away in a Tokyo subway station lies an unassuming, 10-seat sushi bar. It has neither menu nor bathroom and serves only the simplest of dishes, yet patrons must make reservations at least a month in advance. Meals cost 30,000 yen (around $375) and on most nights, are served by and eaten under the stark gaze of Jiro Ono, the restaurant’s 85-year-old owner and most likely the world’s greatest sushi chef.
A man whose passion for his work has brought him to the top of his profession, Ono’s story is the subject of filmmaker and USC alumus David Gelb’s new documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The movie’s title is no exaggeration: As a young man, Jiro dreamed of ways to improve the art of making sushi, and this film is a tribute to what he’s been able to achieve by pursuing those dreams.
And yes, sushi-making is an art, something that would be very difficult to deny after witnessing the care that those working at Jiro’s restaurant put into each and every dish, as well as the reactions they earn from their highly devoted clientele. In the culinary world, Jiro is the apex toward which many look for inspiration and yet his methods are exceedingly simple. All that separates Jiro from his contemporaries is that he truly strives for perfection in every aspect of his business.
As an exploration of Jiro’s philosophy, this film most definitely succeeds. He doesn’t serve anything out of the ordinary, but merely takes the most basic ingredients and prepares them with an eye toward the flawless. Keeping the restaurant and the menu equally slim is how Jiro goes about fully realizing a perfectionism that allows him to function. One gets the sense that each day of his life is almost exactly like any other; were he unable to make sushi, he might simply cease to function.
Jiro has been sharpening his talents for more than 60 years, but only recently has the world started to take notice.
When Michelin, France’s revered food guide, visited Tokyo, the guide awarded the restaurant its highest honor — a three-star rating. Not a single establishment in all of Los Angeles can claim the same feat. Jiro has remained exceedingly humble despite the accolades and believes his technique is still a work in progress. Never is he depicted as boastful.
Appropriately enough, if there’s one thing the film manages to communicate, it’s that this isn’t a one-man show. Each chef working under Jiro went through a grueling apprenticeship that most apprentices drop out of long before becoming worthy of preparing the egg sushi — a test that usually requires hundreds of failures before finally meeting Jiro’s standards.
None have worked harder than Jiro’s sons, who in the Japanese tradition, have followed in their father’s footsteps. The younger son has his own restaurant: a perfect mirror image of Jiro’s that serves the same food, which, despite having an indistinguishable taste, is cheaper because it doesn’t have all of Jiro’s prestige attached.
Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, will have an even harder time stepping out of his father’s shadow considering that it will be his duty to take over the main restaurant once Jiro finally retires.
Though Yoshikazu is undeniably as good a chef as his father, it won’t be easy for him to craft his own identity. The question of the legacy passing from father to son reveals itself as the human relationship at the heart of the story.
This is a beautiful film, shot entirely on the game-changing Red One camera that allowed Gelb to capture all of the footage with no one but the translator onsite to assist.
The result is an intimate, yet crystal clear picture, that properly highlights the food and craftsmanship on display in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. The clearest payoff is a standout sequence comparing a full sushi meal to a musical performance in which we truly witness the care and artistry put into what most think of as a simple food. Here, that very same food is transformed into somwething stunning.
This documentary manages to be effective by approaching its subject the same way its subject approaches life: Pick a specific thing and do it justice. Masterfully crafted, Jiro Dreams of Sushi will leave audiences enraptured and mouths watering.