Jiro Ono Dreams of Sushi -- Film Review
Jiro Ono Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb
This is a very interesting documentary about an 85 year old workaholic Japanese sushi chef, who is at the top of his game, and is perhaps the best of his kind in the world. He runs a small restaurant in Tokyo that seats ten people. Reservations are a must for lunch or dinner. They must be made a month in advance and the cheapest thing on the menu is about $350 and it goes up from there. They have no appetizers and no other dishes except sushi. There's no to-go menu and I don't think they deliver. He's been doing it since he was ten years old. His parents abandoned him at age 9 to fend for himself, and he has. He seems to have no other interests. His life and his work are fused into one. He has two grown sons who have followed him in the business. The older, Yoshikazu, expects to succeed his father eventually, while the younger has started a restaurant of his own. Ono said something that encapsulated what I found essential in this film and that is that a person has to have a palate that is developed and sophisticated and attuned to the nuances and subtleties of this cuisine before one can fully appreciate the time, the scrupulousness, the extraordinary fastidiousness, that is expended on these sushi dishes. Selecting the fish, the rice, and every ingredient, preparing it, marinating it, slicing it, bringing it to the right consistency, cooking it to perfection, etc., are all done with an obsessive perfectionism. In order to fully appreciate the value of all of that intricate, precise preparation, one must have experience in this food and be able to discriminate the small differences that distinguish preparations of the highest quality. I am not a fan of sushi. I don't eat much fish, so I am afraid all of this artistic excellence would be wasted on an uncouth pizza eater like me. It is not my place to comment on food, but I can tell you that if you do like sushi, or if you are a person who is discriminating in food and dining, or if you are a person who is interested in the Japanese and their culture, then you should not miss this film. It is very comprehensive in the many aspects of the restaurant and the sushi preparation. The scenes in the Tokyo fish market stay with me particularly. However, it goes beyond just the food and the restaurant shows us some of the personal story of the man and how he developed as a sushi chef, as well as his sons and their paths into his footsteps. One gets a sense of the conservatism of Japanese society and how people get locked into their professions which seem to merge with their personal identities. A high degree of excellence can be attained through this hard, narrow dedication to perfecting a single skill, but it does not foster innovation and change. These sushi dishes and their preparation techniques seem to be passed down from generation to generation. One feels a certain rigidity in it that is almost a kind of ancestor worship. One telling moment in the film was when Ono and his son visited the grave of his parents. They watered the flowers that were withering on the grave and he made the comment, "I don't know why I come here and do this; my parents never cared for me." Yet he still persists in the ritual reverence for them. The whole sushi culture that he represents seems to me to reflect a static, but uneasy, stability throughout the society and in the personal lives of individuals, that often runs counter to emotional and psychological realities. This is a culture that maintains form and appearance, even though everyone knows that the truth is different. One glaring omission in the film is Jiro Ono's presumed wife. I say "presumed" because she is not mentioned once in the entire film; even her existence is only implied by the fact that Jiro Ono has two sons, and he mentioned at one point that when they were small he was not a good father to them because he was never around, being totally absorbed in his profession. Presumably then, he must have had a wife who attended to the growing boys and managed the household. But she is a ghost in this film. It would have been interesting to hear her perspective on this unusual man and his total dedication to creating the perfect sushi and how this attainment of unsurpassed excellence affected his marriage and his family. Generally this film is a thought provoking window into Japanese culture through the life of a person who exemplifies some of its essential character and brings one aspect of it to the pinnacle of perfection. Dig in.