‘When I ate his sushi, I felt like I was listening to music’. Renowned food critic Mashuhiro Yamamotos’ description of dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro captures the heart of David Gleb’s 2011 exploration of Tokyo’s most celebrated sushi restaurant and its master chef Jiro Ono. If eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro is like listening to music, Gleb’s portrayal of its preparation is like watching ballet. He offers a mouth-watering glimpse into the kitchen of a ‘shokunin’ or ‘master craftsman’, where hands dance and food glistens. Widely acknowledged as the greatest living sushi craftsman, Jiro Ono’s innovative methodology and minimalist style won his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro three Michelin stars, the first of this coveted honour to be awarded to a sushi restaurant. In his study of Sukiyabashi Jiro Gleb presents a culinary practice deeply connected to notions of perfection, obsession and legacy – an ode to a true master as he approaches the end of an illustrious career.
The journey from ocean to plate (or more precisely, from Tsukiji fish market to plate) emerges in Jiro Dreams of Sushi as Gleb’s central narrative force. This structure, which focuses on sourcing, preparation and service at Sukiyabashi Jiro, reflects the value of detailed preparation found at the core of Jiro’s culinary method. Most compelling is Gleb’s depiction of Jiro’s apprentices who train (often for free) under Jiro for ten years in pursuit of the title of ‘shokunin’. With quasi-religious dedication apprentices must prove their total commitment to the craft by repetitively mastering Jiro’s techniques, beginning by hand-squeezing hot towels and only after ten years is one trusted to cook an egg. The ultimate value of precision and detail in Jiro’s kitchen is expertly captured by long stretches of montage which inspire an almost sensual pleasure as shots follow hands expertly stroking, slicing and pressing.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s most entertaining moments are found in scenes accompanied by the eccentric characters who surround the aging chef. We meet for example Jiro’s ‘anti-establishment’ tuna dealer who expertly navigates a tuna filled warehouse as it descends into a chaotic vision of a trading room floor, and later, a ‘rice dealer’ who refuses to supply other clients with rice only Jiro knows how to cook.
Above all Gleb cultivates an understanding of Jiro’s craft as an artform. The principally classical score of Richter and Glass lend a balletic quality to movement and crisp shots see single completed pieces of sushi appear like minimalist sculpture. If Jiro’s sushi is art, it is perhaps performance art, for these moments of aesthetic perfection are by design fleeting, their value is found instead in the process itself and lives on in the more abstract experience of taste.
At the age of eighty-five the spectre of retirement looms over Gleb’s portrait of Jiro Ono. In interview, an anxious awareness of legacy seems to underpin contributor’s discussions of Jiro’s future retreat from professional life, no one more than for his two sons Yoshikazu and Takashi. Jiro’s eldest son Yoshikazu works alongside his father in the kitchen of Sukiyabashi Jiro and is set to take over the restaurant upon his retirement, whilst Jiro’syoungest son Takashi heads up a new branch Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills. In one striking conversation Yoshikazu and Takashi briefly touch on the traditionally Japanese cultural expectation that the eldest son must exceed the achievements of the father, saying ‘when the father is too successful, the son can’t surpass him’.
The figure of Jiro himself adds an almost philosophical dimension to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Elderly and slight, he often moves silently through frames as a calming but authoritative presence. There is a consistently poetic quality to Jiro’s speech which sees him reflect upon his career, creativity, work ethic, sacrifice and skill. He describes for instance ‘visions of sushi’ appearing in his dreams and in almost proverb-like wisdom dictates ‘You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success and the key to being regarded honourably’.
These personal and familial aspects of life at Sukiyabashi Jiro are undoubtedly of secondary concern for Gleb as explorations of complex familial dynamics and Jiro’s emotional life and childhood are often left wanting. And yet there is an authenticity to Gleb’s structure which like Jiro, privileges the craft above all else. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is ultimately a celebration of a culinary philosophy and of an artist totally consumed by his craft. The lessons of Jiro Dreams of Sushi reach beyond the world’s finest restaurants, for what is more inspiring than the endless pursuit of perfection?
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you watch it?
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available for free to subscribers to Mubi and is available to rent for a couple of ££ in all the normal places.