Indie Roundup: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

The best way to see this film is accompanied by an omakase dinner of world-class sushi.

If that’s impossible, as it was with me, who watched it while trying to choke down a deeply unsatisfying microwaved frozen burrito, you’ll find “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed and shot by David Gelb, to be sumptuous torture. As you might expect, Gelb packs the film with one image after another of glistening morsels of raw fish photographed artfully on black lacquer plates; it edges on the pornographic in the best possible way.

The title of the film refers to 85-year-old sushi maestro Jiro Ono, the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small, unassuming place located in a Ginza subway underpass that seats a mere 10 people. A meal there can cost upwards of $300 and, for the uncontemplative diner, takes only 15 minutes to consume, but it will be, by all accounts, sublimely good. In a city packed with Michelin-rated sushi joints, Sukiyabashi Jiro is considered the best.

Jiro’s success comes from his dogged pursuit of perfection. Over the years, Jiro has refined his menu to a precisely ordered set of courses, beginning with tuna and kohada and ending with a soufflélike egg sushi. It’s something that noted Tokyo food critic Masuhiro Yamashita called “Jiro’s symphony.”

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The film is chock-full of sequences of the restaurant’s apprentices performing exacting and laborious tasks to create its stunning menu, from preparing the fish to roasting seaweed to making the rice — no electric rice cooker used here. At one point, Jiro noted that he used to have an apprentice hand-massage an octopus for 30 minutes prior to serving. Now he has him do it for 50 minutes.

The charm of the film is Jiro’s enviable passion for his calling. He is like an artist pursuing a precise vision, and he literally does dream about sushi. He views national holidays, the only days he closes for business, more as punishment than respite. And when we are introduced to Jiro’s many vendors, we see that same zeal. One guy has devoted his life to a single fish: tuna. Jiro’s devoted rice merchant turned down a lucrative deal with the Hyatt Regency hotel because he wasn’t convinced that they would respect his rice.

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The problem with the movie is that Gelb reveres Jiro too much; we never get beyond the man’s flinty exterior. We see hints of what makes him tick — we learn that Jiro was abandoned by his dissolute father at a young age — but nothing is elucidated. Likewise with his eldest son and chief apprentice, Yasukazu, who, in his mid-60s, talks wistfully of a never-to-be career as a race car driver while seemingly weighed down by the prospect of living forever in his father’s shadow.

While the film might be more hagiography than penetrating portrait, it’s still a lot of fun. And it might, just for a minute, make the idea of cashing in your 401(k) to fly to Japan and dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro seem like an entirely rational thing to do.

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March 2012

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