I won’t sit on the fence here: I absolutely love sushi. I could happily eat it twice a day, every day. Maybe even more. I like to stare adoringly at it before I eat it, taking in the variety of colours and the intricate layout and combination of the ingredients. I like the still-novel feeling of picking up food with chopsticks. I especially like the ritual … preparing a small pot of soy sauce, laying out the wasabi and the ginger prior to eating. My wife, a reasonably intelligent soul, believes that I have a sushi habit (and it probably could be classed as a habit; it’s damn expensive to buy in London and even a couple of lunches a week can cost upwards of £20. I’m going to have to wean myself off the stuff with some heroin before long). Yet, despite all this, I’ve never once tried to make sushi myself. Quite frankly, even though I love it and it can be gloriously simple, it also looks like one hell of a faff.
Jiro Ono, however, is someone that has dedicated his life to making sushi, and he is the main subject of David Gelb’s smart documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Ono is an 85-year-old master chef who has run Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza Station, Tokyo for most of his life. The restaurant currently holds three Michelin stars, and has only ten seats available at sittings. It’s fair to say it is the kind of place you need to book months in advance.
The documentary examines the levels of dedication exhibited by Ono and his eldest son, 50-year-old Yoshikazu, as they go about the daily business: buying fresh fish at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, testing and preparing the day’s food with their small team of apprentices and making the sushi for the evening’s lucky few diners. One day Yoshikazu will take over from the old man, but for now he plays second fiddle (despite the fact that the documentary gently points out that he – understandably – carries out a lot of the work and is every bit the master himself).
Days off and holidays are a no-no for Ono and co. The father and son team live and breathe sushi, repeating the same tasks day after day with frightening consistency in order to attain their extremely high standards (Ono disarmingly refuses to believe he has reached perfection, which explains the motivation to continue well into his 9th decade on the planet). As a result of their incredible attention to detail and long-term effort they have created one of the world’s greatest restaurants. If only the food were as good in my own local train station. A sausage roll from Greggs doesn’t quite stand up by way of comparison.
Former and current employees are interviewed for Gelb’s film, as well as Ono’s youngest son Takashi, who has opened his own restaurant – a mirror image of his father’s – in Roppongi Hills. The interviewees have much admiration for Ono, and form an orderly queue to declare it, but the documentary is much more than an extended commercial for Ono’s restaurant. Without ever badgering the old man, it gently examines the mental state of someone that has such high levels of dedication and who is happy to repeat the daily routine to such exacting lengths for decades on end. Some ex-employees feel that the old man can’t let go, and that he should have handed the reins over to Yoshikazu many years ago, and the documentary tiptoes gently around this subject. Yoshikazu himself is philosophical about the situation, and though he may question his lot privately, he certainly shows little sign of unhappiness with or envy of his father or his brother in this film. Jiro receives loyalty from the majority of his employees and his family … the two are essentially the same thing.
The one glaring omission is that there is little mention of the woman in Jiro Ono’s life. I guess we have no god given right to know all the details about someone’s private life, but it does feel odd that the mother and wife of these three chefs is not discussed; her role, after all, is bound to be a supportive and important one.
The documentary is, as you would expect, a real example of food porn. It is packed – and when I say packed I mean packed – with shallow depth of field photography, and while the food does look especially beautiful there’s perhaps too much of this long, lingering soft focus footage. There are leery shots of glistening tamagoyaki (phwoooooarrrrr!), extreme close ups of neatly sliced toro (nnnnfffffffff!) and some hardcore ogling of pressed rice (grunnnnnntttt!!!!!!!!). Jiro Dreams of Sushi is foodie filth, and if I’m surprised at the lack of protests there has been over this absolute muck. How we – as a human race – can get all uppity about a quick flash of Sharon Stone’s fly-catcher but let this dirt corrupt our children is beyond me. (I sincerely hope no-one is offended by the term ‘fly-catcher’. All I can say is, if you are, you should see the phrases I decided not to go with.)
That all said, this is a well-made documentary that contains some beautiful photography. The footage mirrors the minimalism of Jiro’s restaurant, and has a suitably Japanese aesthetic quality. I’m lucky enough to have visited Japan three times, and I love the place; as stated above I was very much interested in the subject matter, but gradually I realised I wasn’t actually watching a documentary about sushi. I was, in fact, watching a documentary about human behaviour and family ties, and a very subtle, unassuming one at that. It is fascinating to see the lengths that this man has gone to in his long life to try to attain perfection. It is admirable to see the amount of work he and his fellow chefs and apprentices have put in and their dedication to excellence. If you have a hobby or interest of any description that you would like to get better at, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a very worthwhile watch.
Directed by: David Gelb
Starring: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono
Running Time: 82 Minutes