“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”–Not Just Another California Roll

This is a nuanced documentary about the 85 year-old Jiro Ono, considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. Ono is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inconspicuously located in a Tokyo subway station, where a sushi dinner starts at approximately $400 per person. Despite its humble appearance, Restaurant Jiro is the only sushi restaurant on the globe to receive the highly coveted 3-star Michelin rating.  Sushi lovers, some with great trepidation, make pilgrimage, calling months in advance for a seat at the ten-customer sushi bar.  Think French Laundry.

For most of his life Jiro (a sea-turtle face, worn with age and determination) has been mastering the art of making sushi, still striving for perfection in a distinctly Japanese fashion.  Leaving home as a 9-year-old boy to learn the art of sushi, not the skill or trade, Jiro’s life has been filled with long days, working from sunrise to past sunset.

This documentary is much more than a movie about the perfect slab of sushi.  At the heart of this film is Jiro’s relationship with his two sons, particularly the designated successor, his eldest son Yoshikazu, who is now over fifty years old.  Not dissimilar to succession in family-owned corporations or aristocracies, the heir-apparent may wait most of his adulthood to assume the helm of his successful father. 
 Takashi, the younger son, while still close to his father and older brother, has left to start his own  sushi bar elsewhere in Tokyo.  Yoshikazu waits.

In David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, we are watching a man whose relationship with sushi wavers between love and madness. He is a perfectionist, never satisfied.  His apprentices can spend ten years learning how to create an egg omelet (tamago-sushi) that meets the fastidious expectations of Jiro or how to proficiently massage octopus for 45 minutes.

Jiro exists to make sushi. Sushi exists to be made by Jiro.  While viewing this film, I found myself drawn to the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes? Secret dreams? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?  Sushi seems to define Jiro, as an extension of himself.

While each delicate sushi gem is beautifully captured in mouthwatering detail, it is the subtext of the father-son relationship that is most riveting. The son is expected to succeed his father in the family business, after having learned the intricacies of the trade that only a father can pass on.  How does the son feel about his successful father? How can he meet his father’s expectations?

Gelb paints Jiro as an enigma—we learn almost nothing about his personal life as a father and husband,  only as a legendary sushi chef, creating some of the most delectable sushi in the world.  Sushi is not so simple. It takes a special genius to bring about the essence of what food has to offer, and like any other art form, takes years to master—with Jiro himself believing that he hasn’t found perfection in his work yet.

“Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” is a hauntingly elegant meditation on work, obsession, family, and the art of perfection, chronicling Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world, and a loving yet complicated father.

“The Net”–Captured in Each Other’s Minds

I always let my blog followers know about my recent art and fiction publications.  Just two days ago my short story, “The Net”, was published in an online literary journal (www.orionheadless.com). The Buddhist metaphor of the net underpins not only this short story but also my writing, art and philosophy of life. Read the short story in tandem with this post for a fuller back-story to the Buddhist values implied in “The Net”.

The Buddhist concept of perception was front and center in an art class on Color Fundamentals. I learned that human vision is limited in terms of what colors we see.  Color differs from one individual’s vision cells to another person’s.  Yet we all use a language of color.  Moreover, human perception of color may not actually correspond to the color of the object.  We receive and perceive colors based upon our ability to accept certain wavelengths of color.  These colors differ from fish or birds, for example. Or from other people who have color differences (formerly called “color blind”). This is such a Buddhist concept of perception!

My short story,” The Net”, is taken from a classic Hindu tale adapted by the Mahayana Buddhist school in which the god Indra’s net is strung together with crystal jewels reflecting off each other.  In Buddhism this becomes the icon for the philosophical concept of interconnectivity, interdependence, community between and among all sentient beings.  In some of the more philosophical Hua-yen treatises, Indra’s net symbolizes each individual mind reflecting others in continually evolving, fluid patterns.

The Buddhist notion of interdependence implies that all of life is mind-created, illusory as a reality in and of itself (just as color is).  Our world is limited by and dependent upon what our minds want and can see.   By definition, we cannot know anything separate from our own mind and how it is reflected by other minds. I used this profound metaphor for the structure of our reality to create a story about a social net, a circle of women friends who support and reflect each other’s thoughts and feelings. The friends mirror each other and each of them is a jewel intimately connected with all the other jewels in the group. When one jewel changes or shifts slightly, it resonates with the other jewels that reflect it. In my short story it is stories from childhood that the women tell which rebound and reflect off each other.   All the women understand.

The irony and current reaffirmation of connection and community is evidenced by our attraction to the Internet and social networking.  There is even an Internet company in Boulder, Colorado called “Indra’s Net”! The net is all around us and expands to infinity: a meditation on the interplay of each of us as stored and reflected in the minds that surround us. A mesmerizing and elegant concept indeed!

Netflix–Give Me What I Want to Watch!!

We are all familiar with recommendations that are “pushed” towards us on e-commerce sites–think Amazon.com, Netflix, Pandora, and even Facebook (who suggests “friends”).  We never seem to receive Netflix recommendations that we like without suffering through a lot of misfires.  For every movie we really love, there are at least 20 duds.  And I have rated over 2580 movies on Netflix. So they should know what I like by now.

In a recent article in USA Today (April 9th) I learned that Netflix is trying desperately to improve its recommendation system, especially for its video-streaming service.  It seems that most subscribers watch the recommendations list provided by  Netflix on  Instant Queue.  (See my top 10 recommendations in my February 6, 2012 post) Netflix even offered a “Netflix Prize” of $1M to the individual or group who could recommend movies that viewers would rate higher than what Netflix predicted.

In the case of Netflix, their five star-rating system is used to determine what movies I might watch.  Netflix filters my past ratings as well as information on my Instant Queue  (knowing I watched only ten minutes of one of their suggested movie recommendations, for example).  With no experience in any of these high-tech algorithms, my husband and I have, nonetheless, become increasingly satisfied with the recommendations we are receiving both in Instant Queue and in the mail.  Why has this happened?  Because we have changed our method of rating movies to only one star or five stars–one star for “awful” and five stars for “wonderful”, with a few four stars “excellent, but flawed” thrown in.  No more waffling with two-star and three-star movies.  A three star vote is the same as not voting at all.

See for yourself how many two- and three-star movies are on the Netflix website–the vast majority of their inventory! Does the three-star movie (which means two stars to the left of the scale and two to the right) suggest it  is worth two hours of my time or does it mean that I didn’t want to rate it as a strong dislike, but  wish I hadn’t watched it anyway?

Get what you deserve–change your rating system to only the extreme likes and dislikes.  Never vote three stars. Then the recommendations will be more closely aligned to something worth watching, not a lot of  “meh”!


“The Hunger Games”–Our “Harry Potter”?

“The Hunger Games” is  part “Harry Potter” meets the “Truman Show” with a dash of “American Idol” and “Lord of the Flies.”

The blockbuster trilogy by Suzanne Collins is set to be an equally sensational trilogy on the silver screen.  Like the Harry Potter series, Collins’ trilogy is targeted to a young adult audience. “The Hunger Games” is a dystopian tale about a country called Panem (from the Latin meaning–“bread and circuses”,  loosely referring to the government’s providing food and recreation to prevent discontent and revolution.)  Panem is a mythical country ruled by a totalitarian government situated in a Capitol owning all the wealth. The Capitol maintains order through nationally televised blood sports known as the Hunger Games, in which two young “tributes” from each of twelve districts, a boy and a girl, must participate in an annual winner- takes-all bloodbath. President Snow oversees the annual Hunger Games, with a villainous cunning to suppress all dissension from the masses.

A sixteen-year old girl, Katniss Everdeen, is paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to represent District 12, intended to be Appalachians (think Harlan County, Kentucky mining towns).  Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence (nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Actress in “Winter’s Bone” –see my review at www.womensmemoirs.com),  She imbues the character Katniss with a blend of grit and strength, the camera lingering on her every expression and gesture.

Narrated in the voice of Katniss, the book “The Hunger Games” gives  little background detail or context of scene.  In fact the book reads as a book conceived as a movie.  The author, Suzanne Collins, is a former writer for Nickelodeon TV, and her vivid storytelling actually lends itself to being amplified onscreen.  The context of the remote control of the environment, the surveillance cameras, and the games becomes vivid in the film in a way that the reader cannot fully imagine.  Usually the opposite is true when a book is converted to film: visualizing the scenes in the book are a disconnect from the movie.  Not in this case!

Nonetheless, here are a few inevitable quibbles about the book vs. movie storyline, remembering that a novel and a story on the silver screen are two very different forms of creative expression. Perhaps most egregious of all is that the mockingjay, a creation of the Panem government’s experiments on the environment,  is not explained in the movie. The symbol of the mockingjay, emblematic of the environmental and political wounds of the people of Panem,  becomes increasingly important in books two and three of the trilogy, so this may have been a misstep that hopefully is rectified in the sequel.

President Snow is barely mentioned in the first book, but his role (played by the indomitable Donald Sutherland) is much more prominent in the movie.   His prominence may also be a cinematic device to iterate some of the thoughts Katniss has towards the government, which could only otherwise be accomplished through voiceovers or monologues.  Sutherland is more effective.

In the final analysis, “The Hunger Games” is a winner-takes-all home run–even for those of us who are not young adults!