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New documentary follows world-famous sushi chef Jiro Ono on his quest for perfection
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a new documentary opening in select theaters this month, follows the personal and professional life of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, and considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef.
The film presents viewers with mouth-watering images of sushi preparation: Two nimble fingers pressing against a glob of rice and twirling it until molded into a firm rounded cube. A close-up shot of Jiro brushing lustrous glaze over a fatty tuna sushi before presentation. Chefs slapping stacks of nori seaweedover burning coals until crackly with roasted fragrance.
But it’s more than just a film about sushi.
It’s about a 9-year-old boy who worked to survive on his own, and has been working with the same zeal for 75 years since. It’s about a stubborn man with a never-ending desire for perfection. It’s about a chef who loves his job so much that “grand visions of sushi” dance in his dreams. And it’s also about a father who has left such an influential legacy that his sons will have a tough time leaving his shadow.
Mostly, however, it focuses on Jiro’s obsession for pure sushi.
“I feel ecstatic all day at work because I just love making sushi,” said Jiro. “That’s the true spirit of a shokunin.”
“Shokunin,” the Japanese term for an artisan or craftsman, is Jiro’s philosophy for his profession. He believes he can improve the ancient craft of sushi-making without sacrificing its tradition.
Sushi has become a global trend and now comes in different forms — some are stuffed with cream cheese and avocado, baked with mayonnaise, or rolled into burritos. They rotate on conveyor belts, travel around on food trucks, and are packaged into grab-and-go plastic containers in convenience stores.
So it makes little sense that an inconspicuous, 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant that charges a starting price of 30,000 yen ($370 USD) in a Tokyo subway station would stay in business for decades.
But Sukiyabashi Jiro is doing well. So well, that the restaurant requires at least a month’s advance in reservations. Despite the tough competition in the sushi business, customers notice the exceptional quality in Jiro’s sushi. In 2009, Sukiyabashi Jiro was the first sushi restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars, the highest possible level of praise in the culinary world.
It isn’t easy to work under a perfectionist chef like Jiro. It takes 10 years of training before an apprentice is considered worthy to be called a shokunin. One apprentice related half-crying, half-laughing, about the day he finally mastered making tamagoyaki (griddled omelet) and garnered a rare praise from Jiro.
“Jiro is like the maestro of an orchestra,” said Masuhiro Yamamoto, a food critic who has followed Jiro’s progression for years.
With the admiration and prestige Jiro has garnered, one can only imagine the pressure on his two sons, the eldest who will one day take over his father’s restaurant and the younger who is already in charge of his own sushi restaurant.
The film only touches upon these aspects of human drama lightly, however. One scene shows Jiro’s former apprentice remarking with a laugh that it’s past time for Jiro to retire. The comment is glib, but the apprentice’s face turns solemn, and he adds that it isn’t easy for Jiro’s eldest son Yoshikazu, who has worked under his father for 50 years. The scene fades off into another, but the moment lingers, leaving the audience to consider how Jiro’s passion and success has affected his family.
For better or for worse, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is, foremost, a nod to an artist’s dedication and sacrifice in the pursuit for more than mere excellence.