Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Judging from the poster and title, Jiro Dreams of Sushi sounds and looks like a postmodern comedy directed by Michel Gondry. I immediately thought of Gondry’s 2006 film The Science of Sleep as a possible kindred spirit to Jiro, at least in theory. How wrong I was.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a snappy Japanese-language documentary about an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs a ten-seat restaurant hidden in the basement of a business building. It is close enough to access by metro and around the corner from the famed Printemps location in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district. The documentary is a paean to work and the love of it. We learn that Jiro was abandoned as a child and, having no formal education or means to access it, started working for survival at a young age. He has become a master sushi chef, evidenced by the fact that his little shop is the only one awarded three stars by the prestigious Michelin rankings. In case you’re wondering, a Michelin-rated three-star rating means that it is worth traveling to that country for the sole purpose of eating at that particular restaurant. And this tiny sushi bar – literally, it is just the bar with ten chairs – was chosen out of the literally millions of sushi restaurants in Japan.

Jiro is a workhorse, to put it mildly. He rises at 5 am and arrives at the famed Tsukiji fish market to ensure he gets the very best catch of the day for his customers. We are let in on some of the secrets to preparing and serving the best sushi (rice should be served at room temperature not cold; massaging the octopus for a good 45 minutes will ensure that your tako will have the perfect texture). The intense dedication comes at a hefty price, as menus are often chosen by the chefs based on the catch of the day and start at 30,000 yen a head (that’s $300 US), and reservations are taken a month in advance.

We learn that his sons have gone into the business as well, with the elder working directly for him and the younger having opened a chain in the upscale Roppongi Hills neighbourhood. We also learn that there are sacrifices to hard work, as Jiro often works from 5 am until well past 10 pm and admits that he missed most of his children’s formative years.

It’s a little odd that I’ve never seen a movie about sushi (I’m not counting Oldboy: fans will know why) and that, together with Sushi: the Global Catch, I’ve seen two of them in the space of six months. But such is the appetite for the food and its place in the global discussion on sustainability that Jiro and his sons worry about overfishing and overconsumption of seafood. The two films together would make a very informative double bill.

While Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not as whimsical as its subject sounds, it is also sincere and honest about the nature and love of work. Being a sushi chef is more than cutting up raw fish and putting them on plates served ice-cold. To master it, there lies a philosophy that whatever you serve, the next one will be better. This is an intimate documentary that is straightforward and, like last year’s masterful Bill Cunningham New York, shows the dignity and fun in working with something you love. (Take note that both Jiro and Bill Cunningham are working well into their 80s and show no signs of slowing down.)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently playing in limited theatres, and you can find out more about the restaurant here