The thing I enjoy most about documentary films is that the best ones offer a glimpse into a part of our world I previously knew little or nothing about. The very first film I ordered from Netflix, way back when their main business was renting DVDs, was The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Someday I’ll have to post a review for this site because it really is a wonderful experience, all about finding your niche and overcoming whatever obstacles you find in your way. It also has one of the most entertainingly despicable cinematic villains of all time, one Billy Mitchell, but I’ll save his story for a proper review. Had I never seen that film, I’d likely never have known that there are official world records for eighties arcade games like Donkey Kong and people willing to go to great lengths to set and maintain those records. Similarly, without Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I’d likely never have known about the person many regard as the best sushi chef in the world and his inspiring view of how to perform one’s work honorably.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny, ten-seat restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building. Every day, the owner and chef, Jiro Ono prepares a lunch and a dinner service for which he will charge 30,000 yen. Reservations are mandatory and sell out months in advance for a tasting menu of twenty pieces. Most people finish in under an hour, fast eaters in as little as fifteen minutes. That’s right, $300 for a meal where the chef decides what you eat and prepares each piece as you go. There are no abominable, cream-cheese infused California rolls, imitation crab sticks, or marble-sized chunks of wasabi. The 85 year-old Jiro has pared down sushi to its essence, seafood and rice, and serves it in the manner he’s spent nearly seven decades perfecting. His approach toward his craft is deceptively simple; he buys the best ingredients and prepares them in a way that accentuates their natural flavors. He goes about this by working only with suppliers that share his exacting standards. His shrimp vendor is an expert in shrimp. His tuna vendor approaches the daily auction with the attitude of, “I either buy my first choice or I buy nothing.” His rice supplier has refused to sell the same rice Jiro uses to other restaurants because, “if they can’t cook it, what’s the use?” Jiro then weaves all these wonderful ingredients together into a dining experience that’s so consistently excellent, it’s earned a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, an honor unheard of for a place this small.
Watching Jiro and his apprentices prepare the day’s food is absolutely fascinating, and it’s beautifully on display here. The cinematography is just gorgeous and the soundtrack, featuring large doses of Philip Glass, is inspiring. I mean it with absolutely no irony that I never realized watching someone prepare food could be so engrossing. Almost as fascinating is the dynamic between Jiro and his two sons, both accomplished sushi chefs in their own rights. The younger son, Takashi, opened his own restaurant at his fathers insistence, while the elder, Yoshikazu patiently waits for his father to retire so he can assume his proper place. The problem is that Jiro is still showing no signs of slowing down. It is to Yoshikazu’s credit that he seems resigned to his fate. Well, mostly.
Much is made here of the idea of being shokunin, a craftsman or artisan, and it resonated with me profoundly. It’ll be no surprise to those who know me that my work is something I take great pride in, and Jiro has inspired me to follow his example. His guide to being successful and respected is as brilliantly simple as his food. Once you’ve chosen what your life’s work will be, devote all your energies toward that end. One becomes better by continually searching out opportunities for improvement. Perfection is the goal, though it likely will never be attained. Jiro exemplifies this life and it seems to infect those who come in contact with him. It even appears to have informed director David Gelb; the movie’s runtime, at a tight 81 minutes, is the model of efficient excellence. In short, this is a perfect film, one absolutely worth seeking out.