Delightful Doc ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ Pleases Crowds, Entices Taste Buds

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Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – According to Jiro Ono, the intriguing titular subject of David Gelb’s documentary, sushi is a dish that must be savored. However, it should be eaten the instant that it’s served for maximum satisfaction. Fat will not be tolerated on the fish since lean meat carries the essence of flavor, and it is within the simplicity of each morsel that a true depth of flavor can be achieved.
The makers behind “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” appear to have followed that same philosophy while tackling this material. Instead of utilizing the structure of a densely detailed documentary, the film centers its focus on the events presently occurring within Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat restaurant at a Tokyo subway station where Ono and his team of dedicated assistants craft one miraculous offering after another. Gelb wants to somehow capture the olfactory sensations emanating from Jiro’s kitchen, and he comes as close as any filmmaker ever could.
Rarely has a foodie documentary produced the sort of swooning sighs I heard at a packed preview screening of “Jiro” in Chicago. The greatest highlight of the picture is a prolonged sequence where audiences are invited to follow the progression of a complete three-course meal served by Ono. Gelb’s cinematography offers an extreme close-up of each freshly prepared sushi as it settles on the plate, while electrifying the senses like a flavorful firework. There are hypnotic instances of slow-motion used to emphasize the care with which Jiro carefully forms and prepares each sushi. These lingering shots are practically fetishistic, yet they accurately portray the amount of time that’s set aside to elevate the food to Jiro’s exceptional standards of quality. One task required of a young apprentice is to massage an octopus for 45 to 50 minutes in order to give it the soft texture necessary for digestion. Another longtime assistant recalls that he had to wait ten years before he would be allowed to make egg sushi. His first 200 attempts were deemed failures by Jiro, but there finally came a day when one of his creations proved to satisfy, prompting the humbled man to burst into tears. Though Jiro is portrayed as a kindly wise sage, it’s clear that his stern demeanor would prove uncomfortable for everyone in his venue—including his customers (which results in a priceless cutaway gag). One of Jiro’s most vocal supporters, food critic Yamamoto, notes that for truly great chefs, impatience is a virtue.

Jiro Ono is featured in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Jiro Ono is featured in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

As the film gradually unfolds over a brisk 81 minutes, the audience learns more details about Jiro’s backstory, though not as many as one would’ve hoped for. By age 10, Jiro was on his own and forced to fend for himself, thus kick-starting a career in cooking that would last for the next 75 years. An interesting contradiction arises when he discusses the lives of his adult sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. Though Jiro half-jokes that children who return home after growing up turn out to be failures, he convinced both of his sons to opt out of going to college in order to work for him. “Always doing what you’re told doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed,” says Jiro, whose young rebelliousness is fondly recounted by former schoolmates. And yet, Jiro’s attitude towards his children reflects the very antithesis of this philosophy (Yoshikazu admits that he once harbored aspirations of becoming a race car driver). Do Jiro’s apprentices succeed by not abiding by his rules? Such questions certainly serve as food for thought.

To be fair, Jiro doesn’t come off like a tyrant, and his children don’t seem to be unhappy. While Takashi, the younger of the two sons, eventually branched off to establish his own sushi restaurant, Yoshikazu still works beneath Jiro, despite the fact that his father is currently pushing 85. It’s saddening to hear critics’ prognostications that once Jiro passes away, Yoshikazu’s sushi will have to be twice as good in order to leave a sizable impression on eaters. Jiro certainly looks great for his age, but it seems clear that Yoshikazu’s skills in the kitchen make an equally great (if not greater) contribution to the current quality of Sukiyabashi Jiro’s output. These troubling aspects of the film clouded some of its cheerier moments, of which there are an abundance. Yoshikazu and Takashi score big laughs with their tragicomic tale of their first taste of Coca Cola, which proves to be a miniature drama in and of itself. There’s an equally funny moment when Jiro’s tuna dealer replies, “Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you don’t and then you get depressed,” and the camera holds on his chipper expression as it falls into a state of despair.

A delectable sushi from Jiro Ono featured in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
A delectable sushi from Jiro Ono featured in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures

As a first feature effort from 28-year-old Gelb, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a bona-fide crowd-pleaser guaranteed to make even the pickiest eaters’ mouths water. It certainly made me want to give sushi another try, since my sole experience of it was at a restaurant where I and several other guests were required to down endless rolls prior to exiting. By the time I left, my stomach felt like a fishbowl. This film encourages eaters to respect and appreciate food as an art form, both in terms of its production and consumption. Jiro also makes an important point that fishing profits should be balanced with the preservation of natural resources in order to halt the extinction of vital species. Even though the film succeeded in uplifting my spirits, I was left with the nagging feeling that a tougher film could’ve been made about Jiro and his sons. Of course, it wouldn’t have been as palatable.

‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ features Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono and Takashi Ono. It was directed by David Gelb. It was released April 6th at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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