There are many reasons to make documentaries. Some are advocacy pieces, meant to shed light on a plight or story that the filmmaker desperately wants to make an audience aware of. Some are more detached, journalistic pieces meant to simply bear witness. And others still stand to simply share, the simple stories of what it means to live and exist in whatever form the camera is trained upon, confident in the fact that reality carries with it its own meaningful narrative. On the rare occasion, like a bolt from the sky, you get a mixture of all three, and documentaries become more than any of these things—they become works of art.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary by David Gelb. As you might expect, it deals with the art of sushi-making: specifically that of Jiro Ono, an 85 year old world-renowned sushi chef and owner of the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro. Food and film are a common combination in today’s world, with multiple TV stations devoted to giving you all food all the time. But as Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes to lengths to show, and as Jiro himself humbly states multiple times, the subject of this documentary isn’t food. It is, at its core, about art.
Art doesn’t make any excuses for itself. And Jiro, who has been making sushi for seven decades, runs his tiny Tokyo restaurant without any compromises. We’re quickly introduced to Jiro’s methods through a Japanese food critic and Jiro devotee, who explains Jiro’s accolades at the same time he lays down the truth of his habits. Sukiyabashi Jiro is one of the most famous sushi restaurants in the world, but it’s a modest 10-seat place. Jiro serves sushi and only sushi, and has a reservation list over a month long, with prices that make the head spin. It’s in the elite of restaurants, and with that comes a certain responsibility to uphold, an honor that is expressed with real seriousness.
What’s interesting, then, is how irrelevant all the fame seems to Jiro. With his history told in bits and pieces through recollection and a few remaining photographs, the movie pieces together the story of a man who struggled to survive from an early age, and coming back from World War II found himself with only one real passion and talent: making sushi. The earnestness with which he did this one act, and the devotion to which he carried out that desire, are single-minded to the point of tyranny. Jiro is a dictator of a tiny island of wood, general of soldiers brought in fresh daily from the market. Everything around him bends to that single focus: making sushi, as best as he can, forever.
Into this single-minded vortex comes Jiro’s two sons, Takashi and Yoshikazu. Both sons are described as initially being resistant to coming into the business, but both became apprentices worked twice as hard by their distant father for being related to him. Takashi, the younger son, eventually was tasked with leaving and creating a branch restaurant, nearly as famous and successful in its own, different way. Yoshikazu, on the other hand, remains under Jiro’s wing even into his 50s. He will inherit the legacy of the restaurant, both a great honor and a crushing curse, a burden that Yoshikazu, determined but seemingly not particularly stand-out, will struggle with continuing. This is more a problem of his father’s legacy than anything: even if he’s as good, he will only be a shadow of what people claimed to see from Jiro’s craft. Both men seem aware of it, but only the outsiders dare to comment. Yoshikazu, representing both the store and his family, only expresses his desire to do his best.
There’s something very remote and unyielding about these men and what they do, but what else could one expect? These are people who have devoted their lives to one thing, and if they seem addicted to work and narrow-minded in their focus, who could blame them? Jiro speaks of being a bad father to his sons, but both sons grew up to be just like their father. When Jiro reflects on his life, it’s often more wryly depreciative than nostalgic, but it’s hard to fault any ills this unassuming old man did in the past when we see the results all around us. It is the fine line where the ambition and focus ascends beyond the normal and in doing so takes with it a lot of the ‘expected’ other parts of someone’s life. For all three men, indeed for nearly everyone spoken to in this movie, sushi is life. If everything else suffers, so be it.
And it’s the sushi, then, where the film really comes to life. The movie is shot in a clean, remote style: long shots of watching these people work and interact, montages of the narrow lives they inhabit, and a heavy reliance on tilt-shift photography to reflect the minimalism of Jiro’s sushi. It’s even set to an array of classical pieces and the omnipresent compositions of Philip Glass, an obvious but perfect choice for a film such as this. But each piece (mostly the nigiri consisting of a slice of fish sitting on a small bed of rice) is filmed in the same ritualistic way it’s crafted. We watch the chefs form it, style it, and then set it upon the featureless rectangular plate used to display it. The sushi slides into a close-up, settling off the knife of the chef, sinking into its place like birds landing on a perch. Each piece is named, both an identifier for people not in the know and like the title of a work of art. They might as well be, as each type is identical no matter how many pieces they make.
It’s this adherence to detail that harmonizes with the subjects being filmed that elevates this documentary into this rarefied strata of arton film. Jiro and his apprentices, the fellow chefs and food critics: all bend to the single belief that this food can be transformed into art. Director David Gelb, believing that truth, gives us one medium through the lens of another, and layering art over art enriches both.Jiro Dreams of Sushi transcends being just for foodies or sushi-lovers specifically, and becomes more a meditation on the drive to create, and how one person has seemingly reached the pinnacle of that art. That passion transcends preferences for food or style of documentary, to become something universally meaningful.
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