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“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.

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