When you see “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” make sure you’ve already staked out the nearest sushi place. It doesn’t matter if you’re really in the mood, or even if you dislike raw fish, you’re going to have a pretty strong craving within five minutes, and by the time the lights go up you’ll be ravenous. Director David Gelb, in his feature debut, treats his subject’s cuisine like the art form it truly is, and this pristine documentary is at its strongest when showing us richly photographed shots of pink tuna over rice.
Of course, it’s also a unique character study. The film follows Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, a legendary restaurant with three Michelin stars but only ten seats. He’s still going after decades upon decades of the same work, every day, and is revered as perhaps the greatest living sushi chef. This certainly makes things complicated for his eldest son, well into middle age and still waiting to take over, hoping to achieve the same level of eminence. It’s the family stories that lend a personal touch to the gorgeous images of food, if they are a bit neglected at times.
There are moments of compelling humanity laid atop the canvas of salmon and roe as Jiro and his sons relate the secrets of their success. The master chef runs a tight ship, and it’s truly inspiring to watch him create these masterpieces with an extraordinary attention to detail, all the while passing it on to his children and apprentices. The meat must be perfect (the restaurant hires a special buyer for each kind of fish at the market), the rice must be perfect, and an apprentice has to work for ten years before even approaching the eggs. Nothing must be overlooked or done half-heartedly.
And this inevitably puts a certain amount of pressure onto his sons. His second already has his own restaurant, affiliated with the first but less expensive and in another part of Tokyo. His eldest, however, is the traditional heir and must wait to acquire the original Sukiyabashi Jiro. The film touches on this awkward dynamic, a son already beyond 50 years of age still waiting for his 85-year-old father to retire so that he can take over the business, and it affords one of the genuine moments of human interest gleaned from these heroes of sushi.
Unfortunately, there are not quite enough of these explorations into the story of this family to raise “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” to the next level. We do see the harsh perfectionism of Jiro’s methods, both in training his apprentices and raising his children and glimpses of his own difficult childhood in post-war Japan. Yet these are peeks, rare flashes of a deeper character study that pull your attention into the film but which are not really expounded upon. The details of sushi-making that fill up the rest of our time are certainly fascinating to learn, but they aren’t quite as poignant.
Thankfully, the sushi itself takes center stage in such a way that it is hard to even think of anything else as the film closes. Everything is arranged to illustrate the simple beauty of these delicacies, in a way making up for the fact that we cannot taste them. Jiro makes only the most basic of sushi dishes, choosing to perfect the primary ingredients of his cuisine on the highest possible level. As a result, the masterpieces he produces are wonderfully minimalist in visual composition, of which Gelb (cinematographer as well as director) takes full advantage. The soundtrack also adds a remarkable splendor, as sweeping classical music accompanies the preparation of delectable pieces of sushi throughout the film. Jiro’s culinary art is not unlike the Mozart and Tchaikovsky that play over his gorgeous array of seafood, a triumph of formalism and extraordinary attention to detail.
So trust me, you’re going to want to make a dinner reservation when you purchase that movie ticket. Maybe even at Sukiyabashi Jiro itself (three Michelin stars more than implies that it’s worth traveling across the globe to Japan just to eat there), though reservations can only be made a month in advance.