RogerBW's Blog

Jiro Dreams of Sushi 07 February 2015

2012, dir. David Gelb, Jiro Yoshino: IMDb / allmovie

Ono Jiro is the oldest chef ever to get a third Michelin star; his restaurant in Ginza only seats twelve people.

Much of this film is the record one would expect: the daily routine, the selection and preparation of the food, and so on. But the secondary story is one of obsession and how people cope with it in themselves and others.

Jiro is in his mid-eighties and is considered the master of sushi. His older son, Yoshizaku, is fifty, and is still regarded as his father's apprentice, though he does much of the food-buying (and was the man doing the actual food preparation when the restaurant got its third star). At some point Jiro will retire or die, and Yoshizaku will take over, but nobody knows whether the restaurant can survive the loss of Jiro; as it stands, its popularity is entirely based on his personal reputation and even cult. How does Yoshizaku feel about having had his life mapped out for him? Going by what we see here, he's never seriously considered doing anything else.

Meanwhile the younger son, Takashi, has opened his own restaurant a couple of miles away in Roppongi, that just happens to be a mirror image of his father's (Jiro is left-handed, amazing for someone growing up in Japan in the 1930s when one would expect it to have been trained out of him, and Takashi isn't). Takashi says here:

When I opened this restaurant, my father said, "Now you have no home to come back to." He said that I would be buried in Roppongi.

and everyone smiles, because they are family and everything's going well now, but still one gets the feeling that Jiro meant it.

Jiro takes days off only when he's forced to. He's no longer up to buying fish at Tsukiji market every day, but everything he does is dedicated to continuing to improve his craft. Considering how entirely focused he appears to be, one can't really picture him ever living in retirement: once he retires, one suspects, he will quickly die.

We know Jiro's wife is alive as she's mentioned once, but she never appears. All the kitchen staff are male. Women have no role in Jiro's professional life. (He comments that he makes smaller portions for female diners, so that everyone will finish at the same time.)

There's not much here about Jiro's rise to his present status. What did he do before he had his own restaurant? He was an apprentice, but to whom, and for how long, isn't mentioned. This film is about Jiro as icon, and the image of Jiro the sushi master is in some ways more powerful than the man himself.

A third story, even less spoken, is of the power of self-deception. The restaurants are booked solid a month in advance, and the basic tasting course starts at ¥30,000 (around £160 at current rates). As long as the food's tolerably good, most people who've paid that much will claim they've had something superb, because to say otherwise would be to say that everyone else who loves the place is wrong – or that their own taste is inadequate to discern greatness.

But of course the fish and shellfish stocks are gradually declining thanks to years of chronic overfishing and particularly indiscriminate trawling that nobody has an incentive to stop; the suggestion here is that this is because of the current huge popularity of sushi, produced in vast quantities for the conveyor-belt and convenience store markets.

This is a fascinating film if you like sushi at all (as I do), and probably as a psychological study even if you don't. Highly recommended.

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