David Gelb‘s delectable documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi captures the quiet obsession, eccentric quirk, and transcendent talent of Japan’s finest sashimi chef. Jiro Ono, 85 years young, has spent the past seven decades mastering his craft; as a result, his nine-seater restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro is considered one of the best in the world. Reservations are taken one month in advance, and an evening’s eating starts at $300. His fifty-year-old son, Yoshikazu, waits to take over the family business; he really didn’t think Jiro would hang in there for this long.
But this is no dramatised family feud. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is all about the unflinching determination of an artist; not only must every piece of food produced be of the highest quality, “it has to be better than last time.” Jiro drills repetition into his crew, who are driven to near madness in their efforts to please him, and are grateful to be tasked with thankless endeavours such as massaging octopi for an hour as a means of enhancing the flavour (how Jiro first discovered this trick, I don’t want to know). As opposed to the flavourless, begrudging depiction of degustation in another recent doco, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Gelb here conveys the irresistible appeal of Jiro’s food, and the pleasure it provides. Everyone is honoured to help Jiro create something grand, and he is self-deprecating enough to suggest they do all the important work for him.
There are occasional digressions from Jiro’s methodical approach (including the procurement of produce from the fish markets, and, amazingly, his negotiations with rice dealers): we learn of Jiro’s early days, when he was kicked out of the house at the age of nine. He and his sons share their concerns of over-fishing, and the rapid decline of numerous species. Finally, we get to watch him conduct his symphony: a fastidiously prepared and lovingly eaten meal presented in three orchestral movements. As the banquet progresses, he adjusts his cooking style to that of his guests; smaller portions for the ladies, accommodations made for the left handed. They don’t even realise until they’re told. The film similarly guides us smoothly from opening credits to closing without complaint or concern, and before you know it, you’ve dreamily submitted to 80 minutes of raw fish preparation.
One of the best meals of my life was enjoyed in Tokyo. My partner and I were the lone patrons of a miniscule ramen shop that is better described as a man’s kitchen with stools propped up against his bench. There were wet tea towels everywhere, but nothing was being washed. It couldn’t have come to more than $10. I have no trouble wrapping my head around the prices at Jiro’s restaurant, however. Gelb’s lingering, fawning camera does not struggle to make the delicacies look as if they’re worth every penny.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi opens in select cinemas across Australia May 10, 2012.