Friday, April 20, 2012


By his own account, the title character of Jiro Dreams of Sushi really does dream about sushi. At the beginning of this swoony documentary, legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono, then about 85, describes visions of sushi coming to him while he sleeps.

The movie presents Jiro’s creations so vividly that you may end up dreaming of sushi yourself after you see it. Directed by the young TV documentarian David Gelb, making his feature debut, it’s a loving, visually ravishing ode, all set to passionate classical strains, especially those of Philip Glass, to the art of making uncooked fish look yummy—no doubt it tastes yummy, too, but unfortunately you can’t get that from a movie.

It’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking, crafted with the care of one of Jiro’s courses, but it’s more than high-class food porn. It’s a portrait of an obsessed artist and his reverent followers. Jiro’s 3-Michelin-Star restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is unassuming—located in a central Tokyo subway station, it seats ten, serves only sushi, no appetizers, and is reportedly booked more than a year out. Jiro’s aesthetic is austere; a food critic in the film calls it “minimalist.” On the other hand, director Gelb’s eye on the place, its food, and its staff is romantic, complex, besotted.

Gelb gives us subtle family tensions—Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, is his father’s dutiful second fiddle at the restaurant, though he’s fifty years old, while Jiro’s younger and somehow more glamorous son Takashi runs his own, less formal second location across town. There’s a poignancy in Yoshikazu’s lifelong, uncomplaining residence in Jiro’s shadow—he seems somehow older than his own father—and it’s hard to tell if he resents it, or is terrified of the all-but-inevitable day when he’ll have to take over and face the comparisons that will follow.

Also implicit in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a reproach to whiny Western attitudes toward work: It was hard for this lazy American not to feel a little chastened by the severe yet wryly amused face of Jiro, who came up from poverty and was on his own from boyhood, when he insists to the camera that one should never complain about one’s job, and should constantly strive to improve. This attitude is reflected in his business associates, who we also meet. The vendors with whom Yoshikazu deals on his daily run to the vast fish market each specialize in one kind of sea creature, the guy who sells Jiro his rice is a similarly parochial master, and so on.

There’s a tinge of comedy to all this, as well, because, of course, we’re talking about sushi—little bits of seafood and rice and seaweed pressed together in appealing ways, to be snarfed up in a bite or two. That’s what these people have devoted their lives to, what diners wait years for, what these moviemakers have devoted such skill to. The interview subjects, even Jiro himself, show a certain chuckling, sheepish awareness that, at the end of the day, they’re talking about finger food. Much as I enjoyed the film, my inner vulgarian wanted to go to Jiro’s place and ask for teriyaki sauce to pour over my food, and a Dr. Pepper to wash it down.

Finally, there’s even a mild environmentalist aspect to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Yoshikazu notes how overfishing—partly driven, of course, by the popularization of sushi worldwide—has affected both the quantity and quality of the daily catch from which he has to choose, especially of his art’s staple, tuna. “Without fish, we can’t do business,” he sadly notes. As with sushi chefs, so with humanity.

RIP to Levon Helm, fine musician and equally fine actor—I love his delivery of the opening narration in The Right Stuffpassed on at 71, to Greg Ham of Australia's Men At Work, passed on at 58, and to Barnabas Collins himself, Jonathan Frid, maybe the last actor to attain old-school horror stardom by donning evening clothes, a cape and fangs, passed on at 87, just a few weeks too early to catch Tim Burton's upcoming movie version of Dark Shadows, in which he reportedly has a cameo. More about Frid, needless to say, in an upcoming Monster-of-the-Week....

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