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‘Jiro Dreams Of Sushi’: Perfection, Carefully Sliced

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 8, 2012

A bite-sized view of Japanese culture, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is nearly as meticulous as its subjects, Jiro Ono and his Tokyo restaurant. The movie’s first word is oishi, Japanese for “delicious,” and what follows is a treat for sushi veterans. First-timers, however, may wish for a little more context.

The crux of David Gelb’s documentary can be expressed in numbers: Ono still works daily, although he was 85 when the movie was shot in 2010. His top-priced restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, has but 10 seats, yet earned three Michelin stars.

Small restaurants are common in Japan, as are family-run businesses like Ono’s. But most modestly sized Japanese eateries don’t draw gourmets from around the world, or charge upwards of $300 (depending, of course, on the exchange rate) for a 30-minute meal.

Ono’s is a tale of discipline, ritual and obsessiveness, all of which are characteristic of Japanese craftsmen — especially the ones who had to rebuild their country and their lives after World War II. For Ono, who as a young boy was abandoned by his father, hard times started well before American bombs began falling on his homeland.

Two of the movie’s main supporting characters, Ono’s sons, have a somewhat different perspective. They never experienced the deprivations that still motivate their father. But both have accepted Dad’s profession and techniques.

The older, Yoshikazu, is second-in-charge at the original restaurant, in the basement of an office building in the upscale Ginza district. He will replace his father when — or should that be if? — the old man retires. Takashi, who seems to have gotten the better deal, runs a more affordable branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi, a less staid Tokyo neighborhood.

Gelb sometimes takes his digital camera outside the two restaurants, although only once to document a personal trip. The movie’s chief off-site destination is the city’s massive, bustling Tsukuji market. Yoshikazu once dreamed of being a race-car driver; now he dutifully bicycles to nearby Tsukuji every morning to buy fish.

The family’s dealings with merchants are revealing. Jiro Ono may appear to be the ultimate traditionalist, yet the left-handed sushi master sees himself as something of a maverick. The Onos buy from a demanding tuna dealer who’s considered “anti-establishment.” When Ono and a rice merchant discuss the worthiness of certain clients, the two sound more like cultists than connoisseurs.

The movie’s guide to such culinary arcana is Masuhiro Yamamoto, a restaurant critic who occasionally slips into English for such words as “perfectionist.” It’s Yamamoto who oversees a meal that was arranged for the movie. Gelb didn’t shoot during regular business hours, so the film lacks the spontaneity and serendipity of cinema-verite documentaries.

The restaurant’s course order is “like a concerto,” we’re told, and Gelb choreographs food-preparation sequences to the music of such methodical composers as Bach, Mozart and Philip Glass. The accompaniment is obtrusive at times, but its precise structures suit the movie’s tidy outlook. Even the seemingly fanciful title turns out to be entirely earnest: Ono says that he does indeed dream of raw fish and vinegared rice.

In one of the Tsukuji scenes, the documentary concedes that the oceans are fast emptying of Sukiyabashi Jiro’s crucial ingredients. But that’s a rare moment when Jiro Dreams of Sushi acknowledges the world beyond Ono’s fastidious 10-seat universe. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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