Jiro Dreams of Sushi was the first film that I saw at the Wisconsin Film Fest, and it ended up being my favorite of the weekend. The Japanese documentary had a lot going for it. It had an “American (or Japanese, as the case may be) Dream” component to it, with an inspiring story of a man from an underprivileged background working hard to hone his craft and ultimately building a successful business and being recognized globally as one of the most talented living sushi chefs. It had a compelling and attimes tragic family narrative about Jiro’s eldest son, struggling to fill the enormous shoes of his father. And on top of that, it was about an hour and a half of some incredibly sexy food porn.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi tells the story of Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a nine-seat unassuming sushi restaurant locating in a Tokyo subway station. After leaving home as a child and looking after himself, Jiro spent his life learning and mastering the fine art of sushi preparation, and as a result, his restaurant is the only sushi restaurant ever to be awarded the coveted Michelin three stars. Jiro is old school, very stern, strict, and demanding of his kitchen staff, though he also has a sense of humor, and even proves willing to laugh at himself and his intimidating ways. His restaurant is unique, consisting of a single counter with nine tall stools, and a meal (which will cost you a minimum of $300 and must be booked over a month in advance) involves Jiro himself preparing single bites of sushi one by one and presenting them to each diner in turn. There are no appetizers, no entrees, just sushi, served rapid fire, in a carefully orchestrated succession.
In addition, the film introduces us to Jiro’s two sons. Jiro tells us that after they finished high school, both of his sons wanted to attend college, but Jiro convinced them to help him in his restaurant instead. Jiro’s youngest son, Takashi, started his own restaurant (which is an exact copy of Jiro’s, except for the fact that the entire restaurant is a perfect mirror image, due to the fact that Jiro is left-handed and Takashi is right-handed). Takashi jokes about the fact that many of his customers have previously dined with Jiro, but prefer to return to Takashi’s restaurant because they find it more relaxing away from Jiro’s scrutinizing eye. Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, still works as Jiro’s assistant. In Japanese culture, according to Yoshikazu, it is the eldest son’s role to take his father’s place once he retires. In this case, however, Yoshikazu got more than he bargained for, as Jiro is 85, and claims that he will only retire once be becomes so old that he is too unsightly for customers to look upon. There is an undeniable sadness about Yoshikazu, longing to take a leadership position, but resigned to his role as assistant. He performs much of the work involved in the running of the restaurant, and it is revealed that he is at least as skilled as his father in sushi preparation, yet he remains an unknown. Towards the end of the film, a reflective Jiro observes that his own perceived role in the restaurant is inflated. He admits that the vast majority of the work is done by Yoshikazu and the rest of the kitchen staff, but because Jiro is the one in front of the customers performing the final composition and plating, he receives the glory. The relationship between Jiro and Yoshikazu is tense, and at times tragic, but ultimately a compelling family narrative that makes this more than just a food documentary.
But this is a food documentary, after all, and for those of you more compelled by the food than the people, you will not be disappointed. A great deal of the movie is devoted to filming the preparation of the sushi, in such a lush and beautifully shot way that any frame of this film could easily be one of those meticulously composed shots that we now see all over Pinterest. I don’t know what kind of cameras were used in the making of this film, but whatever they spent was worth it. The ultra-close-ups, often in slow motion, showcase the irresistible sensuality of food preparation. Every time I turn on a food program on television (which, I admit, is a lot), these are the types of shots I’m hoping to see, and never have I seen them more perfect. Were I a more cynical person, I may in fact dismiss the style as too lush, too romantic, set as it is to gorgeous classical piano concertos, but alas, I was absolutely seduced. The one complaint I could make about this filming style was that it did not allow for as much technical discussion of sushi preparation as I would have liked. There was some discussion of what it is that makes Jiro’s sushi unique (and perhaps this was all Jiro was willing to reveal), however I would have loved to hear more, to have the process explained to me start to finish. But of course, this would have clashed horribly with the ornate and romantic image of the food that they had constructed.
As I already revealed, this was my favorite film that I saw during my weekend at the Wisconsin Film Fest. It weaves a fantastic family narrative with wonderfully compelling characters, all the while allowing us to gaze and drool at delicious food. Any time you watch a movie about food, it’s unavoidable that you will walk away wishing that you could have tasted it, and this is no exception. With the care and precision taken in the filming of this documentary, however, you really felt like you almost could taste it. Foodies and non-foodies alike will all find something to love about Jiro Dreams of Sushi.