David Gelb, “Jiro dreams of Sushi” (2011)
Surely this documentary should have a great deal of significance for me as my parents ran a restaurant for nearly 30 years in northern Sydney, first in Gordon and then in Gladesville. The restaurant was never a success but it was enough to support four children, none of whom went into the restaurant business. Gelb’s film is the story of Jiro Ono’s tiny Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in downtown Tokyo and Jiro himself. The restaurant came to international notice as the first of its kind to receive three stars in the prestigious Michelin guide and despite being a tiny 10-seat establishment located in a nondescript subway station, so great is Jiro’s reputation as the world’s best sushi chef that customers must book seats at least a month in advance and a meal there costs 30,000 yen (US$800 at the time the documentary was made).
Not a great deal is said in the documentary about Jiro’s early life apart from his father leaving the family forever when Jiro was seven years old; we don’t even learn how, when and where he became an apprentice and then a sushi chef. The emphasis is on Jiro’s personality and his love of making sushi and running his business, to the extent that it consumes his life and the lives of his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takeshi. His zeal and quest for perfection are obvious throughout the film. It occurred to me that this would be a good documentary to show to high school and college students and people thinking about opening their own businesses as a way of educating them about choosing work that you love, dedicating your energy and talents to it, perfecting your skills, always seeking to improve your technique, always looking for new and improved ways of doing things, and never taking yourself and your work for granted. Food critic Yoshimoto, who appears frequently throughout the film, nails the characteristics of a good sushi chef (and indeed other great artisans, come to think of it) down to just five: quest for perfection, passion, impatience, effort and cleanliness (for other artisans, replace cleanliness with order and technique).
The real soul of the documentary though is Jiro’s complicated relationship with his elder son Yoshikazu which can fill listeners with some fear about what will happen after Jiro, in his mid-eighties at the time of filming, must eventually retire. In his fifties, Yoshikazu is already an accomplished sushi chef and more than capable of running the restaurant on his own but, due to Jiro’s reputation, he is forced to work in his father’s shadow and that is his tragedy. As another sushi chef, a former apprentice of Jiro’s, comments, customers only want to eat food prepared by Jiro: if Jiro were to retire and the business taken over by Yoshikazu, the restaurant’s reputation would fall and for Yoshikazu to prove himself his father’s equal, he would need to be twice as good as Jiro. One feels that if Jiro were to retire, perhaps the second son, Takeshi, who runs a branch of the restaurant at Roppongi Hills in metropolitan Tokyo, might be the better person to run the main branch but this would cast shame on Yoshikazu as the elder son in a society concerned with hierarchy and face.
Some time is spent on Yoshikazu and Takeshi’s childhood with Yoshikazu admitting he dreamt of being a fighter pilot and then a Formula One racing driver when a child. Jiro admits that both his sons wanted to attend university after leaving high school but he persuaded them to be his apprentices and to continue his work. It does seem rather creepy that a father should be so absorbed by his work that he practically press-gangs his children into it. Especially as training to be a sushi chef takes well over a decade in developing skills in food preparation and gaining the necessary experience to be able to run your own business.
The film is beautifully shot with skillful use of techniques such as slow motion, sped-up filming and overlapping of images to emphasise the artistry, skill and effort expended in making sushi and pleasing the customer. The entire documentary is shown from the point of view of Jiro, Yoshikazu and various others connected with their business such as the food critic, the men currently apprenticed to Jiro and Yoshikazu, the vendors at the fish market and the rice supplier. It’s interesting that the fish market vendors Yoshikazu relies on say that the profit motive does not motivate them; the tuna supplier in particular admits that his method of selecting tuna for Jiro’s business is unorthodox. As the film-makers follow him at the tuna auction, the audience sees that the supplier relies on intuition gained from years of experience and natural skill to select the best fish.
Music in this film is quite significant with a mix of nineteenth-century orchestral and more contemporary music, some of it composed by Phillip Glass, used in significant scenes where the chefs prepare and cook food for their customers.
And what of the future? Yoshikazu admits that good fish is becoming harder to find due to overfishing. He says that sushi cuisine was once exclusive with a refined reputation but with the advent of restaurants where sushi is served on conveyer belts, sushi has become commonplace. It seems that with Japanese cuisine becoming an international cuisine, sushi and other Japanese food items have lost what made them distinctively Japanese and become more or less mass market / industrialised products with the concomitant loss of their connection to the sea and the land, and the respect that went with that connection; the result is that seas have become overfished with fishing trawlers relying on wasteful and cruel methods such as drift-netting, and marine ecosystems are on the verge of collapse.
Altogether this is an absorbing documentary about the nature of work, the quest for perfection and the complicated relationship that can exist between a father and his son who are both partners yet rivals in the same business entity. One can see the dilemma facing Jiro and Yoshikazu: for his son’s sake, Jiro really should retire but retirement would be his death-knell; Yoshikazu on the other hand labours in Jiro’s shadow and his full potential will flourish only after Jiro is gone. As long as Jiro remains active, he is likely to live a long time but this means Yoshikazu may not be his own man until well into his sixties or even his seventies and his talent as a sushi chef may start to decline before then. There is no mention in the film as to whether Yoshikazu and Takeshi have families of their own and if they have sons who would follow them as sushi chefs.
At the same time, it has to be said that sushi is not the most important aspect of Japanese cuisine and other aspects of Japanese culture encapsulate Japanese values just as much as making sushi and running a sushi restaurant do.