For a documentary about a very specific subject, Jiro Dreams of Sushi has a lot on its plate. Even if you don’t like sushi, you will probably be inspired by this portrait of a master.
When in Tokyo...
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a sushi counter in a Tokyo subway station. Diners need to make reservations a month in advance (that was before this movie was released, so you might have to wait even longer now). There are only 10 seats, and there is no bathroom. Yet it earned a perfect 3 star Michelin rating, which means, essentially, that it’s worth a trip to this country just to eat at the restaurant. Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only place of its kind on the Michelin list.
Jiro Ono is the proprietor and sushi master. He’s 85. The Japanese government considers him a “living national treasure.”
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about his life.
The Secret to His Success
The movie does a good job conveying Jiro’s philosophy and work ethic. “Never complain about your job” is one dictum. “Fall in love with your work” is another. His son explains that for Jiro, success comes down to making an effort. In other words, it’s perspiration — not inspiration — that makes a man a success.
That’s not quite it, though. It’s not just hard work or perspiration. A former apprentice says that success comes from repeating the same thing every day. It’s habit, in other words, and not just hard work.
But even that doesn’t quite capture it. For example, Jiro believes that parents are too soft on children. They need to be kicked out of the nest, or they will become dependent failures. In other words, it’s not just habit, it’s having the personal motivation to stick to a habit, that really makes one a success.
The work ethic isn’t enough. There are also high standards to maintain. Aspiration is a key component to success. Jiro always tastes his work during preparation. If it’s no good, he doesn’t serve it. Former apprentices go on camera to talk about how exacting Jiro can be. One current apprentice who finally graduated to the egg dish (after many years) recalls having 200 egg pans rejected, one per day, before one was finally allowed to be served. “I was so happy I cried.”
“Massaging the octopus,” sounds vaguely lurid out of context, but Jiro and his apprentices take it seriously. Octopus is worked by hand for a full hour before it is served in his restaurant.
And Jiro tries to stay current. His latest innovation is sequencing the meals he serves, as though each piece were a movement in a symphony. It seems like an integral part to a sushi meal, yet it’s only a 7-year-old idea.
For 40 minutes or so, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a perfectly made portrait of an unexpected role model. Getting to know Jiro through interviews with him, his family, his colleagues, and his fans is a delight. He doesn’t make any effort to be winning or charming; he’s all business, and serious about being good. Somehow that makes him all the more winning and charming.
The movie starts to lag in a few places, and that usually kicks off a new tangent. There are brief segments about his rice dealer, his son’s work buying tuna and octopus at the fish market, and a profile of another son who also runs a sushi restaurant. There’s a short scene explaining how sushi took off in North America and Europe. These scenes don’t clash, but sometimes they do feel like padding.
Making a documentary about a chef affords the filmmakers some opportunity to get away from talking heads (though there are plenty of those shots too). There are shots of preparations, food photography, scenes of Jiro commuting to work. There are steadicam, time-lapse, and slow-motion shots.
The pace of the documentary is brisk, and director David Gelb saves a few key revelations to keep things interesting, right up until the end. He even saves one surprise about the Michelin ratings for the very end, as a way to wrap up some of the disparate threads that had been weaving together throughout the film.
All in all, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a fascinating, inspiring movie about a hard working master of his craft. You don’t even have to like sushi to appreciate that.