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Monday, March 26, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Plays Sad and Quirky with the Japanese Work Ethic

Posted By on Mon, Mar 26, 2012 at 4:30 PM


Jiro Ono, the focus of the new film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is exceptionally singular. For 40 years now, the 85-year old, three-Michelin-Star chef has been crafting immaculate sushi in a ten-seat restaurant on the second floor of a bustling Tokyo subway station. To sup at Sukiyabashi Jiro, and savor the 20-piece tasting menu of sushi designed by the master each day, customers must pay 30,000 yen (368 dollars) and make reservations a month in advance.

If David Gelb's remarkable new documentary on Jiro Ono focused solely on these fascinating bits of minutiae, it would be a surprisingly fascinating film. Gelb goes deeper, though, unearthing a work ethic and familial code of honor that seeps its way in to every part of the life of Jiro and his family. 

Though it centers on Jiro's aged visage and his equally aged philosophies on living life as a chef, the film's true subject is Jiro's oldest son and right-hand man Yoshikazu Ono, a 52-year old sous chef resigned to a life in his father's shadow. Jiro, obsessed with the art of sushi making since the waning days of WWII, strives to be nothing less than the greatest sushi chef of all time, a man so steeped in routine -- he gets on and off the subway at the exact same place everyday -- and dedication to his work -- he only considered retiring after suffering a heart attack at the Tsukiji Fish Market -- that everything else in his life must adapt to this passion or be lost in the shuffle. 

Having worked under his father since the age of 19, Yoshikazu has become a chef of equal skill, but as the audience learns, because of his father's standing he may, even after Jiro's inevitable passing, continue to be considered a lesser chef. In one particularly telling scene, Yoshikazu makes his daily trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market where he consorts with the greatest of fishmongers. Each is a reflection of Yoshikazu, dedicated tradesmen who have mastered their trades, but their conversations rarely stray from the discussion of Jiro and his masterful ability to make sushi. Though it is clear the Yoshikazu is the next in line, perhaps even the force currently urging the business forward, even those he works with on a daily basis cannot acknowledge his skill in the shadow of his father.

Because of Jiro's almost cartoonish elderly looks and the idea of anyone dreaming of sushi, one might think that Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a quirky comedy of sorts. Elements of today's standard eccentric documentary appear, but the film is touched with the melancholic. Jiro's life has been consumed by his work, and it seems as if his children's will be, too. Gelb's greatest trick (and he is certainly a director to watch) is to suggest that Jiro's relationship with his son and his work is indicative of the Japanese work ethic.

Aside from hefty themes, Gelb has crafted a film that celebrates the love and the beauty of food. His ultra-slo mo shots of perfectly prepared sushi dripping with miso glaze are as gorgeous as anything in Planet Earth. A beat-by-beat filming of Jiro's 20-course tasting menu will stir a craving for sushi so deep in to your stomach you'll be upset it isn't offered alongside the stale popcorn and soda of your local independent movie house. His portrayal of Jiro, Yoshikazu, and their apprentices glows with a subdued warmth that draws the viewer into their routine and their passion.

                                                Noah Sanders tweets at @sandersnoah.
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Noah Sanders


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