Date: May 12 2012
Jiro Ono really did dream about sushi when he was a young man learning his craft in Tokyo after World War II. The restaurants in which he worked followed the rules established more than 100 years earlier. He wanted to experiment, but his superiors said there was nothing to be gained: everything had already been done.
Now, 65 years later, Ono is widely regarded as the world's best sushi chef. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, has three Michelin stars but only 10 seats. It's a modest space in the bowels of the Ginza subway station. Aficionados come from other countries to eat there - if they can get in. It costs the equivalent of $300 for a meal, usually consisting of 20 pieces of sushi, each of which is handmade in front of the customer, either by Jiro himself or his elder son, Yoshikazu, the heir apparent.
There are no appetisers and everyone sits at the counter, watching the master moulding rice in his hands, then applying the fish on top, laying each completed piece on a shiny black platform for each customer in turn. Each piece looks incredibly fresh. I swear they seemed to move on the plate, as if breathing.
Even in these food-obsessed times, this would appear to be a specialised subject for a feature-length documentary. That would be true if the film were about sushi, but it's not. I learnt a fair bit about sushi, but a lot more about Japanese attitudes to life, work and family. I already knew something about how differently these concepts are interpreted by the Japanese, but the film gives us a privileged glimpse at one family. There is a glaring omission, though, because we never see Jiro's wife. She may have been reluctant to appear or predeceased her husband, but American filmmaker David Gelb does not explain, so there's an absence. That makes it even more of a film about men.
Jiro was 85, and still working long hours, when the film was made in 2010. For most of his life, he has risen before dawn to go to the fish market and returned home late in the evening. He laughs when he tells a story about his younger son, Takashi. As a toddler, on the rare occasion that he saw his father, he would run to his mother to say that there was a strange man in the house. Takashi now runs the second Jiro restaurant, where the food is cheaper, perhaps because it only has two Michelin stars. When he left, his father told him he had nowhere to return to. In other words, he had to make it work.
That left Takashi's elder brother, Yoshikazu, still under his father. He is already in his 50s, ready to take over, already in charge most of the time, but he would never dream of encouraging his father to retire. He has, in effect, been an apprentice since he was 19.
For Jiro, work is a spiritual path. ''You have to fall in love with your work … It is the key to being regarded honourably.'' There is a strong sense of ambition that does not go away, or relate to business. ''We don't care about money,'' he says. What he does care about is continuous improvement. ''I will continue to climb, to reach the top … No one knows where the top is.''
In fact, the film is partly about the complicated relationship between tradition and modernity in Japan. Jiro was a troubled child, virtually abandoned by his parents. His mastery doesn't come from following tradition. There's a revealing scene when he travels back to Hamamatsu, where he grew up. He talks to a group of schoolchildren, explaining that he was a bad kid. ''Always doing what you are told doesn't mean you will succeed in life,'' he says. That's why one of the apprentices has to knead the squid for 50 minutes every day and why they age a piece of large tuna for up to 10 days. Jiro found that it tastes better that way.
Another revealing aspect is that his suppliers are just as serious. At the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Yoshikazu buys from specialised shops that won't sell to just anyone: the buyer has to have the right devotion to good fish. The man who grows Jiro's rice says he refused to sell his crop to the Hyatt in Tokyo. Not serious enough. I guess that guy dreams about rice.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI
Directed by David Gelb
Rated G, 83 minutes
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