Monday, May 23, 2011

1MB On Film: Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Official movie synopsis:
"In the basement of a Tokyo office building, 85 year old sushi master Jiro Ono works tirelessly in his world renowned restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. As his son Yoshikazu faces the pressures of stepping into his father's shoes and taking over the legendary restaurant, Jiro - san relentlessly pursues his lifelong quest to create the perfect piece of sushi."

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful documentary and portrait of Jiro Ono, the oldest chef ever to win the highly coveted honor of 3 Michelin stars, and who is recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure.  This past Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend the screening held at the Japanese American National Museum courtesy of CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment).

With some of the world's best sushi as its focus, the film is unquestionably first and foremost a feast for the senses, with stunning almost voyeuristic shots of glistening fish gracefully pressed over rice, nori swept over open grill, all to a soaring score by Phillip Glass.

But on closer inspection, at its core, the film is a story of everyday transcendence - of the triumph of will against circumstance and time, of passion and tireless pursuit of perfection; a balanced look at the man behind the legend - Jiro not only as sushi master, but as father, son, and mortal.  The film also takes you on a thought provoking journey - with one amazingly accomplished man and how he and his sons conduct their lives with an eye towards his inevitable passing.

As sushi master, Jiro is virtuoso/maestro and conductor in one - he lives, breaths and dreams about sushi, and how to constantly take it to the next level of perfection.  He instructs his team consisting of his eldest son and apprentices as a conductor leads an orchestra - pushing each through endless repetition, with improvements all along the way to be the best at their craft.  Directing each to create the perfect experience for their guests, in their 10-seater space, each and every day. Jiro commands the same respect from his diners - no specialty rolls with gimmicky names, dippings or distractions like appetizers are offered here - his pristine sushi is meant to be eaten as soon as it's served, and his unspoken demand of the diner is exacting: focus on your meal. And Japanese food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto describes a meal with Jiro as like a concerto - there is a fluid progression of movements: you start with the classics, and build towards the subtly inventive, inspired cadenza, leading up to a theme with variations for finale.  All in under half an hour - because Jiro runs a tight company. 

A thorough traditionalist, and believer in specialization, Jiro is singly devoted to making his sushi perfect - and exemplifies the philosophy of "shokunin" (craftsmen) - including his trusted suppliers at Tsukiji fish market who are all top-of-their-game specialists in the items they provide - they do not care so much about the money, as about honing their craft, and being able to share that perfect creation with their guests.  Jiro's sushi is impeccable because he uses only the best fish from the top suppliers, the best rice available, formed into masterpieces on the plate with his talent and skill, honed over decades of hard work.

What I loved most about the film, and that I found the most fascinating and moving - was Jiro's personal story, and his relationships with his sons. When Jiro's dad's business failed, he turned to alcohol, leaving his 9 year old son to find his own means to survive.  There wasn't much detail about why his mom disappeared from his life, but Jiro gained his work ethic early - there was no safety net, and failure was not an option.  He choose sushi, and dedicated his life to his craft.  He does not feel that he is alive, unless he is working - even now at the age of 85, when most men have retired.  He intends to keep going until he simply can't anymore, or as he playfully states, until his customers think he looks so 'demented' / senile that they no longer want to see him at the restaurant.  As a father, he passes on this work ethic to his sons - and it is a testament to the filmmaker's skill - that the portrait of Jiro is as well balanced as the flavors we presume in his exquisite rolls - Jiro is seen confessing his absence from his family when his boys were growing  up.  If he was on rare occasion home for the night, the kids would ask their mother "who the strange man is".  Yet his love and pride for his sons though not expressed in a way that would be familiar to westerners, are clear, and mutual - both have stepped up to learn their father's craft and have prepared most of their lives, under his mentorship - to succeed him and hopefully carry on his legacy.

Elder brother Yoshikazu is 50 years old himself, yet cannot break from the tradition of apprenticing under his father, to succeed him at Sukiyabashi when he is gone.  Younger brother Takashi started his own branch with their father's blessing, as only one brother may succeed their father at the original location.

The boys grew up poor, like their father - which probably reinforced a similar work ethic.  They recount a poignant yet sweet tale of saving up for months to purchase their first can of coca-cola, only to lose most of it in an eruption of soda, after shaking it vigorously with the belief that the action is needed to evenly distribute the 'best' flavors that tend to settle at bottom.  Brotherly comraderie shines through - where audiences expect bitter rivalry over their father's legacy - as they share a laugh over Yoshikazu's guilt and the fact that Takashi still remembers to this day.  Ultimately the unspoken but poignant truth is that as adults, both toil at their craft knowing it would be near impossible to emerge from the shadow of the gargantuan stature that their father has achieved. 

There are bittersweet notes, such as when Jiro pays respects to his parents' at their grave, he says in a lighthearted manner that probably belies childhood trauma: "I don't know why I'm doing this, they never took care of me!" - but it is inspiring that Jiro chooses not to let his experience color his relationships with his family.  He made sure his sons would be ready to succeed him, albeit later in his life, preparing them with everything he knows about his craft - handing over fish market duties to Yoshikazu, and pushing his younger son to open his own restaurant, when he determined that he was ready.

Yet it's not all gravitas - there are moments of well timed levity in the film, like when Yamamoto recounts when Jiro was once asked: "When is the best time to eat sushi?"  Jiro:  "When you're hungry".  On a visit Jiro takes on a rare day off, to his hometown - where he is seen both as 'celebrity' and friend - he is greeted by a fellow octogenarian with a simple "We're still alive!". 

Where Jiro Dreams of Sushi excels, in my view, is with stunning, gorgeous visuals, thoughtfully selected music (Gelb has stated that he chose Phillip Glass in particular because it mirrors Jiro's work - there is repetition but it keeps building and elevating) and balanced character portraits with a message about backing up passion for your craft with hard work. What I would have loved to see more of is some allusion to the taste of Jiro's sushi - for those who are experiencing it vicariously, though the visuals alone will have you salivating - and perhaps to round out the portrait of Jiro, some reference to his role as husband (there is no mention of his wife that I can recall - beyond brief family photos and indirectly in the story about being a stranger in his own home).

All in all, a breath-taking work - I would highly recommend it to foodie and film fans.

After the screening was a Q&A session, a chance for the audience to hear from filmmakers directly - one person asked a question that was top of mind for foodies in attendance to David Gelb: "What are your favorite sushi restaurants in LA?" The answer?  He counts among his favorites, Sushi Nozawa and Sushi Zo. 

So there you are - stay tuned for Jiro Dreams of Sushi to come to theaters hopefully soon.  In the meantime, go forth, experience and appreciate your local shokunin!

[Update Nov 2011: Good news for those who missed the previous screenings: Jiro Dreams of Sushi has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, and will hit theaters in NY starting March 9, 2012 and LA starting March 16, 2012!]


1MB Rating: 5 bites (out of 5)'
Likelihood of 2nd Helping?: 100% (when it releases in theaters in March 2012!)

See the trailer at
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Film Distributor Site: Magnolia Pictures


  1. i was there too! still drooling

  2. Wish I had known, would have loved to meet you!

    Yeah the movie made me want to hop on the next flight to Tokyo too!



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