“Elegant” is not a word I can imagine using very often for a documentary, but it’s the word that immediately came to mind after watching David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I suspect that has more to do with Jiro Ono himself and with Gelb’s use of music on the soundtrack (the use of Philip Glass’ The Hours score was inspired) than with the film. Looked at simply as a movie, the film is pretty much of the straightforward variety. Still, the whole package comes across as elegant—and, really, any documentary that can make sushi interesting for 90 minutes clearly does something right. When you consider that I know very little about sushi (as in knowing there are two rolls I like) and that I honestly don’t like documentaries very much, my response to the film is all the more remarkable.
In essence, this a movie about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master, who has been at his craft/trade/art for 75 years, and who owns and operates a famous, fabulously successful 10-seat sushi bar in a Tokyo subway concourse. How famous and how successful? Well, it has a Michelin three-star rating (the first sushi bar to get that), it’s booked a month in advance, and prices start at 30,000 yen (about three hundred bucks). As remarkable as all that is, you have to realize that the film nails down all these facts early on, so what’s surprising is how much additional material there is here.
Some of what remains is clearly of the esoterica variety. I mean—apart from the potential for rude jokes—few of us are likely to get much use out of such knowledge as the fact that you have to massage your octopus for 40 to 50 minutes to be sure it’s tender. (OK, I can see interjecting this as a “did you know” interpolation in a stalled conversation.) More to the point, the film offers us a portrait of the fully obsessed Jiro (“You have to fall in love with your job”) and his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. The younger, Takashi, has finished his apprenticeship with his father and has gone out on his own, opening his own sushi restaurant. His is quite literally a mirror of his famous father’s business—a duplicate in reverse to accommodate the different working needs of the right-handed Takashi and his left-handed father. (You sense this is the sort of detail that springs from Jiro, who notes whether his clientele is left or right-handed to better prepare their dishes.) Takashi appears to be successful on his own, but somewhat more relaxed about it than his father—or his brother, for that matter.
Elder son Yoshikazu is the man in training to replace Jiro when he finally retires or, as the film puts it, “the inevitable happens.” He is easily under more pressure than his brother—and this is despite the fact that he has been the chef in residence on the occasions when the Michelin people have visited the restaurant. It really is an unenviable position. In fact, everyone—including Yoshikazu—is clearly aware that he will have to be not as good as, but better than his famous father for the restaurant to succeed post-Jiro.
It all makes for a surprisingly engaging film about three fascinating, appealing men whose lives are devoted to a craft—an art really—that requires years, even a lifetime, to master. This is definitely a documentary worth checking out. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking.