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September 23, 2012
Master chef Jiro Ono has been making sushi for over 75 years. He started as an apprentice when he was only 10 years old -- one year after he left home for good and became responsible for his own survival. In the new documentary about his life and work, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the 86-year-old Jiro lets us in on the secret of success. The chef smirks and says that children shouldn't be allowed home after they leave; they wouldn't be motivated to succeed otherwise. The harshness of those words is belied in Jiro's eyes, however - there is sadness there beyond his tough exterior. This is the true gift of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi": Beyond the food porn and voyeurism into a world many Westerners know nothing of this is a film about a man who turned to self discipline out of necessity and turned it into high art.
The documentary shows us the daily routine of Jiro and his team at his 3 Michelin-star restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Jiro is the only sushi chef to have ever received this honor and he's also the oldest Michelin recipient in the history of the guide. According to Jiro, his success is owed to a combination of endless repetition and innate talent. He makes no secret of his methods, which are well-known to all sushi chefs, and uses only traditional (although top-of-the-line) ingredients. As we watch Jiro and his staff cook each component (perfect rice, exquisitely sliced tuna, impeccably cooked octopus and eel) it becomes clear that this is more than just cooking for these men; this is ritual, lovingly and dutifully performed.
Jiro uses only the best of the best in his sushi and has personal relationships with all of his vendors. Jiro disapproves of the culture of fast-food sushi that has arisen and blames it partially for the over-fishing of tuna that has resulted in a dwindling supply. It is here that we see Jiro painted as one of the last of a dying breed. Apprentices no longer train from when they are young boys, Jiro says with exasperation in his voice. In his opinion, it takes over a decade to become a good sushi chef, and he sees that most young men don't want to dedicate that much of their lives to being an apprentice. As we listen to Jiro explain how things in his business have changed, it becomes clear that Jiro's age is only one of several reasons why there may soon come a day when a practically perfect piece of sushi will only exist in memory.
In true Japanese fashion, Jiro constantly strives to reach that unattainable ideal, perfection. Stern-faced and particular, Jiro works with his apprentices to fine-tune the preparation of each individual component of the sushi until he deems it acceptable to serve. Some might see Jiro's perpetual quest for perfection as obsession, but the filmmakers provide us with the crucial cultural context; for the Japanese, striving for perfection is what's important. One might never reach the ideal, but the effort is what counts.
His meticulous standards mean that Jiro's apprentices aren't even allowed to touch a piece of fish until they have been trained for over a year. Some find Jiro's methods too demanding and quit after only a day or two. Jiro sees this as an appropriate trial, separating the truly devoted from the merely infatuated. One apprentice speaks of making over 200 pieces of a simple egg sushi before Jiro approved. His expression of delight at finally meeting with his master's approval is touching and lovely. This is a man who appreciates what Jiro is all about.
Over the course of the documentary we get to witness something as rare and beautiful as the food Jiro prepares: a true master at work. Through the eyes of an expert food critic and friend of Jiro's, we come to appreciate the unique gift that Jiro possesses. The critic states with unguarded appreciation that of the tens of thousands of sushi restaurants he's eaten in, Jiro's is simply the best. This is true of everyone who praises Jiro in the film. There's no gushing or flowery praise. Like the sushi that inspires it, praise for Jiro is simple and honest. He is the pinnacle of his field; it's just a fact.
The pleasure we derive from watching this film is in the observation of a man whose work is his true calling. Many might envy Jiro the ceaseless enjoyment he derives from his job. He is long past the age when he should have retired and those who know him best doubt that he will quit before his body forces him off his feet. As aged as he is, Jiro works tirelessly and thrives; his art sustains him, body and soul and that is what this film is really about. "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is ultimately a portrait of a true craftsman and an ode to painstaking perfectionism in a world that has turned away from that ideal.