(2011) Documentary (Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Hachiro Mizutani, Joel Robuchon. Directed by David Gelb
I’ll be the first to tell you that I adore sushi. I love the subtle taste of the fish blending in with the texture of the rice, the little surprising kick of wasabi and the salty tang of soy sauce. I’m not talking about the rolls that Americans tend to prefer (although I love those too) but of the more traditional Japanese form of fish and rice alone.
Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is located in the bowels of a Tokyo subway station. It has ten seats and only ten. All he serves there is sushi. Jiro has been making sushi since he ran away from home at age 9. He’s 85 now and has been making sushi for 70 years. You’d think that in that amount of time he’d be pretty good at it.
Pretty good doesn’t even begin to describe what Jiro does, however and the good folks at the Michelin Guide agree. They’ve awarded Jiro and his restaurant three stars, the highest rating that the guide offers and Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant to possess that rating. The citizens of Tokyo are fully aware of how good his sushi is; reservations are mandatory as you might guess and there’s a one-month wait to get in.
Jiro is one of those sorts who lives to work. He is passionate about sushi; he even has dreams about it, dreams he has written down and then turned into reality at his restaurant. He pursues perfection with single-minded determination that is at once both admirable and unsettling. He doesn’t seem to have any life outside of his restaurant; he works every day all day except for government holidays and even takes those off begrudgingly. His work ethic is admirable but you can’t help but wonder, is’t there something more to life than this?
Not for Jiro and he seems happy in his life. He has two sons; the eldest, Yoshikazu works with Jiro in the restaurant and is being seemingly groomed to take over the restaurant when Jiro retires but Yoshikazu is 60 himself. The youngest, Takashi, owns his own restaurant in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a mirror image of Jiro’s (literally; Jiro is left-handed and Takashi right-handed and so they have their set-ups reversed from one another). Both men labor under the shadow of their father and neither seems to mind.
We are shown the methods of making sushi, accompanying Yoshikazu to Tokyo’s main fish market, to the instruction of the apprentices to the selection of the rice (Jiro gets a special kind that the rice vendor sells only to him because Jiro’s the only person who knows how to cook it properly). This isn’t, despite the title, a movie about sushi at all, although once you see the flavorful tidbits displayed lovingly in their dishes you might get a hankering for some.
What this is about is the pursuit of excellence and its cost. Jiro is a driven man, determined to be a national treasure in Japan and one of the most influential sushi purveyors of all time. Restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, talking about Jiro’s eldest son, says wistfully that when a man’s father is as influential and as important as Jiro is, even if he’s just as good as his father was he’ll never be able to measure up. He has to be twice as good in order to escape comparisons.
In fact, Yamamoto suggests, it was actually Yoshikazu who made and served the sushi to the Michelin representative. One never gets a sense from either of Jiro’s progeny that they have the same kind of drive their father possesses. Jiro may dream of sushi but his sons might have different dreams, even though they did both choose to join their father in the sushi business.
You see, it’s really difficult to tell because there’s no context here. We don’t see Jiro at home, only at the restaurant. When he is interviewed, it is about his career and about the business of making sushi. If Jiro collects stamps, loves baseball or enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby, we would never know because we only get to see this one aspect of him. I don’t know if this is all there is to the man but I kind of doubt it.
This is mostly a mostly fascinating and occasionally frustrating movie that hits most of the right notes. I would have liked a little bit more about Jiro (he does go to a class reunion in his native village and visits the grave of his father, who abandoned him when he was a young boy) but at the end of the day, he will be remembered for his sushi and that is mostly what we see here – his driving force and his one true love.
REASONS TO GO: A study of the relentless pursuit of excellence. Interesting father-son dynamic and a lovely peek into Japanese culture – and cuisine.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s no context here.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes showing the fish being sold in the fish market that might be traumatic for some tots who might love their goldfish but otherwise this is absolutely fine for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Meals at Jiro’s sushi restaurant start at 30,000 Yen or about $370 U.S. dollars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are exceptional.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
SEAFOOD LOVERS: The film shows a number of the different types of seafood that Jiro uses in his restaurant, from massive tuna to tiger prawns to haddock – both as fresh catches in the fish market and as finished product in his restaurant.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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