DIR: David Gelb • WRI: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono • PRO: Kevin Iwashina, Tom Pelligrini • DOP: David Gelb • ED: Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer • CAST: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono
Japanese culture has long held a special fascination for the rest of the world – a seemingly contradictory society that offers unparalleled traditionalism on the one hand, and exceptional technological advancements on the other. In this documentary, technology takes a firm back seat as we meander beautifully through the dreamlike world of 85 year old Jiro, near the Tokyo subway station where he runs a 3 Michelin starred ten-seater sushi bar.
The film opens as Jiro prepares his restaurant for the day, his gnarled hand painting beautiful Japanese characters on parchment as he tells us of his dreams – and in his dreams, there are visions of sushi. Now I confess to being a sushi-sceptic, seeing only simple raw fish wrapped in a fancy rice parcel – but, much like the film itself, sushi’s simplicity belies a wealth of preparation, and the almost operatic movements that bring each piece to life. Again, it is tied in with the idea of traditionalism and longevity, and there is something distinctly Japanese about not only Jiro’s attitude to his work, but the absolute dedication displayed by his disciples – including his sons. And therein lies the real depth of this 81-minute ballet dance through the world of sushi preparation. Jiro has been making sushi for 70 years, since he ran away from home as a teenager to work in a restaurant, and he has now reached the pinnacle of gastronomic appreciation by garnering 3 Michelin stars for a restaurant who’s 10 customers must sit on stools at a bar. But where to now?
His two sons have followed in his sushi-making footsteps; his youngest, Takashi, with no chance of inheriting the business, has left his father’s tutelage to set up a sister restaurant in the city. But the real sadness of the story – or at least the core of Jiro’s singularly focused life – is in his eldest son Yoshikazu’s apprenticeship to his father, patiently awaiting the day when he takes the reins from his respected father’s hands and continues on with Sukiyabashi Jiro’s legacy. Yoshikazu is 50 years old, still attending to the tasks at hand in the working life of the restaurant, but standing in the shadow of a man who seems to live, breathe and, as he points out himself, dream about sushi.
There is so much attention paid to detail in this documentary, and the slow preparation of each individual piece of sushi is rendered so perfectly that the fabulous score seems to barely keep up with the beauty of what’s onscreen. Yoshikazu cycles to the fish market, selecting only the choicest fish before bringing it back to the restaurant. There, he oversees the apprentice sushi-makers who spend years honing their craft before the sushi they make would even be considered for service – indeed, one disciple spends his days massaging octopus, while another continually presents his sushi to Yoshikazu for approval. There is a three month wait for a seat at this singular restaurant, and while the meal will cost upwards of $300, it will not take very long to eat.
Guests are presented their sushi under Jiro’s watchful eye, as he tests his dreams in reality, and every detail of the restaurant is managed with his single-minded quest for perfection. The 3 Michelin stars are certainly well-earned, but it is Jiro himself who makes this documentary more than just a gastronomic pleasure for foodies. It really is a treat for cinephiles too – a beautifully dignified story that gracefully and patiently paints a picture of more than simply sushi.