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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

March 29, 2012
Jiro Dreams of Sushi

How is it that a tiny, ten-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station can require reservations a month in advance? can command prices starting at ¥30,000 (over $360)? can be awarded three stars by the Guide Michelin, and have it said that it’s the only adequate rating? These are all true of Jiro Ono’s restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, and these accolades are the product of his lifelong devotion to his craft. Put simply, Jiro dreams of sushi, and the documentary with this title shows the outcome of his love.

It’s true that by the time the ingredients reach Jiro’s hands, the sushi is 95% complete; the man behind the bar preparing and serving the meal is merely the last step in the process. And yet it’s Jiro who has trained the staff in the kitchen. His fifty-year-old son, Yoshikazu, has been working with him since graduating high school; his head apprentice has been around for decades himself.

Jiro’s sushi is simple: a small mound of rice, topped with a slice of fish and brushed with soy sauce. His genius is in the meticulous care he and his staff put into every step. There are no secret recipes or techniques — only fine, well-honed traditions and practice, practice, practice. One apprentice tells a story of spending months and hundreds of attempts on properly preparing a sheet of grilled egg before finally meeting with the master’s approval; he was only allowed to touch the eggs in the first place after ten years of work.

The same meticulous care extends all the way to the restaurant’s suppliers. The tuna vendor is a picky type who won’t even bid on the vast majority of fish he sees. The shrimp vendor knows everything to know about shrimp. And the rice vendor won’t sell the same rice they buy to another customer, because what’s the point of buying the best rice if you don’t know how to cook it properly?

But even with all that fastidious care in the preparatory steps behind him, there is something magical in watching Jiro work. After decades of work, his kata of assembling the sushi has become a muscle memory. It’s like a ballet to watch him scoop and twist and press the sushi into shape in his expert fingers. It’s hard not to feel a rush of some nameless emotion to watch the master at work. And yet he still says that all he wants is to get ever better.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is simple: a man in love with his work, reflecting humbly on his past and looking to how his son will carry on into the future. Director David Gelb presents the story cleanly and carefully, and we can’t help but admire a man doing the one thing he loves most until he’s forced to stop. Would that we could all find something we love that much.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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