Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Movie Review

Visually splendid, but lacking depth, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, certainly left my mouth watering for the delectable raw fish preparations that have exploded in popularity in the last decade. The Jiro of the title is the 85 year old chef and owner of a tiny ten seat sushi restaurant in a basement in Tokyo. It has twice been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, an honor that suggests it’s worth a trip to that country just to eat in the restaurant, where the menu is determined based on quality and availability that day, and perfection is the only standard by which Jiro judges the food.

What Gelb demonstrates quite clearly is Jiro Ono’s genius, if we can call it that, at the craft of sushi preparation. He has dedicated his life to the art since the age of nine, when his parents made him leave home. There are devout testimonials from his kitchen staff of apprentices (it takes ten years before Jiro will even allow an attempt at egg sushi), an adoring former apprentice, a food critic, and of course Jiro’s two sons, the younger of whom has struck out on his own with an identical replica, though mirror image, of his father’s restaurant.

We learn from all these men that Jiro is committed, almost to the point of irrationality, to perfecting his craft. He speaks eloquently of distinguishing the subtleties in the taste of tuna and deciding which tuna is right for his restaurant. He rarely takes a day off and was mostly absent from his sons’ childhood, leaving the house before sunrise and returning after they’d gone to bed. He demands similar dedication from his sons and staff. One day his eldest son will take over the business, but everyone seems to agree he’s doomed to failure, not because he lacks the abilities of his father, but because he will have to be twice as good just to appear to be as good. I can’t imagine living under such a shadow. The younger son opened his own restaurant knowing full well he would never take control of his father’s.

But what’s missing amid the 80 minutes of praise for this master chef is any exploration of what, besides fresh high quality seafood, goes into the making and preparation of such delights. There are glimpses of seaweed being toasted over heat and rice being prepared ever so carefully. There are comments about the fish being cut to the right size to balance properly with the rice and wasabi, but at the end I would have liked to know a little more about soy sauce preparation, how you determine the right amount of massaging for the fish, and generally what makes his sushi so phenomenal. Devotion to the art is the necessary first step, but we don’t learn much about what comes next. Additionally, we see a lot of men talking in the film. They talk about long days at work and having little time for family life. No interviews are conducted with any of the women in their lives to find out about their feelings regarding their sons and husbands. So we never get a sense of the effect such dedication has on their personal lives.

Still, there are worse ways you can spend 80 minutes than on a documentary that shows wonderful food in all its colorful and sparkling glory. I probably won’t ever get the chance to eat at Jiro’s restaurant, but for a while at least this film will provide fodder for my own dreams.

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