There’s little to no chance that “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” will ever be screened in Indonesia. But the country’s many sushi-enthusiasts should take solace that the DVD will be released in a few weeks, ensuring a culinary euphoria of the most visual kind.
Directed by the relatively unknown David Gelb, the documentary focuses on one of Japan’s most cherished culinary treasures, three-Michelin star sushi chef Sukiyabashi Jiro. Shot with the kind of conscientious-elegance that its subject is renowned for, this short documentary (running a mere 81 minutes) captures the painstaking but wondrous process of creating some of the world’s greatest sushi meals.
Through his camera, Gelb manages to capture the essence of Jiro — an unassuming but assured 86-year-old whose hands have been creating sushi since he was 9 — and translate his unrepentant perfectionism and passion to the screen without the kind of overbearing preciousness that sometimes plagues biographical documentaries.
The symphonic nature of Gelb’s shots, as Jiro and his crew work their sushi magic, feels like a plus in a story that would have worked just as well even if it lacked any gastronomic delights.
Gelb masterfully compresses his subject’s many layers into a highly sympathetic story: as much a crystal-clear character study as it is a story about one of Japan’s most famous delicacies. We learn the ins and outs of Jiro’s popular restaurant in the Ginza area of Tokyo, a minimalist 10-seat restaurant where food enthusiasts are unlikely to get a seat without booking at least three months in advance. When guests do manage to secure a prized seat, they are expected to eat their $300, 20-piece meal in 15 minutes under the watchful — some say contemptuous — eyes of Jiro and his older son, Yoshikazu.
Whether the way Jiro runs his restaurant is fascistic or just one of the prices of genius is another matter (the restaurant’s many reviews on the Internet provide a handy guide on what to expect if you plan on visiting); Gleb’s focus is on understanding what drives Jiro.
The documentary captures the maddening details of Jiro’s obsession with creating sushi that always “has to be better than last time,” as he repeatedly reminds Yoshikazu and other members of his dedicated crew.
And it is that fascinating dedication that enriches the film. Even as the famously reserved Jiro pushes them with barely any acknowledgement or appreciation, his crew is driven to assist the master in realizing a daily vision of creating the perfect sushi. They assume tasks such as massaging an octopus by hand for almost an hour to perfect its texture and taste with a conviction in their master’s belief.
The documentary also sheds light on Yoshikazu, as he steers his way through life under the shadow of his father; an interesting story but one that Gelb smartly doesn’t get into too much. A similar side story is touched on involving Jiro’s younger son, who runs a sushi restaurant in Roppongi.
The documentary’s trump card is in offering a glimpse of the Jiro that is rarely seen behind the sushi counter. Gelb captures a self-deprecating, sometimes misunderstood man who discovered his passion early in life, and has since pursued it with single-minded intensity.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a beautifully efficient study of obsession and passion that should not be missed.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb
Starring Sukiyabashi Jiro, Yoshikazu Jiro, Takashi Jiro
Available on DVD July 2012