Jiro Ono, the octogenarian star of the charming documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is known as the best sushi chef (shokunin) in Japan, if not the world. The Japanese government has designated him a “living national treasure.” The famous Michelin restaurant guide rates his Sukiyabashi Jiro a perfect three stars – a remarkable achievement considering that it’s a ten-seat sushi counter located in the basement of a Tokyo office building. People make reservations a year in advance and pay upwards of $400 for a 15-minute dining experience. Many of them say that they rush to eat their meal because they feel nervous, thunderstruck by Jiro’s greatness. They should try being one of Jiro’s sons.
Embedded within director David Gelb’s examination of what it takes to operate an elite sushi restaurant is a low-key and classically Japanese drama of family and legacy. Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, is a great chef in his own right but, at 50 years old, still lives in the old man’s shadow. Other shokunin who studied under Jiro marvel at the trials he put them through in a ten-year training program. His son, they say, should be more than qualified after three decades of apprenticeship. Indeed, while Jiro philosophizes about work and reminisces candidly about his shortcomings as a father, the camera captures Yoshikazu handling many of the restaurant’s day-to-day tasks: prepping equipment, buying fresh fish, managing the apprentice chefs. But work is too comforting a ritual for Jiro, who believes that there’s always room for improvement. Jiro does not dream of retirement.
This is a film that proves obsession does not have to be a scary thing. Even though everyone – including Jiro – seems to know that his story is defined by an inevitable trajectory, Gelb finds ways to capture the moment with appropriate cinematic flourishes. Life inside the Sukiyabashi is regimented and difficult and endlessly fascinating. The film is less compelling when it leaves that world, but it never strays too far. Jiro is a wonderfully rich character, a workaholic for whom a satisfying result is the byproduct of a perfect design. “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill,” is an example of his practical wisdom. Here’s another one: “Always doing what you are told doesn’t mean you will succeed.” Despite his celebrity status, Jiro knows there is no handbook, no official roadmap to becoming the world’s greatest sushi chef. Ultimately, Jiro makes a keen observation about the challenges in creating a successful and fulfilling life and creating great sushi – both are much more art than science.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” opens in select cities on March 9.