Wake, butterfly -
It’s late, we’ve miles
To go together.
He forms a chrysallis-shaped bed of rice in his right palm. He places one perfectly-sliced piece of fish on it. He brushes it with glistening soy sauce. He sets it on the plate in front of you. If you, like him, are left-handed, he will angle the sushi ever so slightly in that direction.
In the hands of Jiro Ono and his son Yoshikazu, sushi is art. David Gelb’s first feature, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, chronicles their days spent in an underground restaurant that consists of a single counter where reverent eaters wait months to get a place. They gladly hand over 35,000 yen – around $450 bucks – for a 3-course tasting menu with approximately 9 to 12 pieces of sushi. Watching their transported faces, you don’t bat an eye at the price, either.
Gelb’s meticulous, centered filmmaking perfectly suits his subject matter; you breathe more deeply just watching it. He shot the film himself on a Red camera that captures the deep crimson of the fish, the warmth of the wood, and crisp blacks and whites with heady clarity. And he takes you not just to the front of house experience of dining, but behind the scenes, into steamy kitchens where rice is subjected to staggering amounts of pressure to get exactly the right texture, where octopus is kneaded for 50 minutes, a task Jiro admits is hard work, but necessary for optimal flavor and good discipline for the interns. Going even deeper, Gelb allows us a peek into the alien world of fish buying; the Onos will only work with the best tuna dealer, the best octopus dealer, the best salmon dealer, men who make Jiro’s singular focus seem positively ADHD.
And that may be the most intriguing thing about the movie, the question that it poses about the price of perfection. Initially, the film seems to make a powerful argument for pursuing one goal with a laser-like, uncompromising focus. Indeed, Jiro’s dedication to the mastery of this one art form has led to spectacular results that are robustly, beautifully chronicled onscreen. Yet the biographical portrait that emerges shows, unflinchingly, a man who missed the bulk of his sons’ childhoods, who worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, who refused his sons’ college educations, fully expecting them to follow in his footsteps. We never meet his wife.
So while sushi has served Jiro and his fans remarkably well, his sons point to the undeniable fact that not everyone is cut out for the monomaniacal vision often needed to achieve virtuosity. His younger son states that patrons report that his food is as good as his father’s – and watching Jiro’s training methods, you believe it – but simply don’t cost as much. As the oldest son, Yoshikazu is expected and tacitly required to take over the reins upon Jiro’s retirement, which shows no signs of happening any time soon despite the fact that he’s in his mid-eighties. In any event, it’s a task that two participants in the movie deem impossible. “His sushi will have to be 10 times better than Jiro’s for people to conceive that it is just as good,” says one former apprentice, now proprietor of his own restaurant. A reviewer notes that the coveted and rare 3-star Michelin rating was given to the restaurant for the behind the scenes work of Yoshikazu and the apprentices; Jiro, of his own admission, merely provides the finishing touch. Meanwhile, the closest Yoshikazu comes to fulfilling his own dream of racing cars is an Audi that goes 300 km/h.
Like fine haiku, Jiro is beautiful at first glance, the truth of one man’s art distilled into a film that flows like a crystal stream. And also like haiku, there is, under these simple, clean lines, a deep and powerful current. I’ll be keeping my eye on David Gelb. In documenting art, he’s created it.