Jiro Dreams of Sushi, directed by David Gelb. Starring Jiro Ono and Yoshikazu Ono. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking. Running time: 81 minutes.
At first glance, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi may not appear that interesting. It’s set in Tokyo, Japan, in a small restaurant that serves just ten people at a time. It has subtitles. And it’s about a man who prepares raw fish. But if you enjoy drama involving an individual’s passionate pursuit of a difficult skill, if you derive pleasure from seeing someone perform a job exceptionally well, if you regard productive work as a noble activity and like seeing it treated with reverence, this may be one of the most interesting and inspirational documentaries you’ll ever see.
Unlike great documentaries of the past, such as Spellbound (which showed kids working diligently to win a spelling bee), Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not primarily about a novice seeking to become great. It is about 85-year-old Jiro Ono, who is arguably the top sushi chef today and perhaps of all time.
The movie shows Jiro at work running his restaurant, documents how he became a master of the trade, and shows how he trains others, including his two sons, to be first-rate chefs in their own right.
The learning process for his apprentices is, as it was for him, grueling and long. As Yamamoto, a food critic, explains:
When you first sit down at Jiro’s, they give you a hand-squeezed hot towel. An apprentice must first be able to properly hand squeeze a towel. At first the towels are so hot they burn the apprentice’s hands. It’s very painful training, which is very Japanese. Until you can adequately squeeze a towel, they won’t let you touch the fish. Then, you learn to cut and prepare the fish. After about ten years, they let you cook the eggs.
As people who have trained under them well know, experts at the top of a profession can have a very different conception of “adequate” than others do. This is certainly the case with Jiro, and the documentary shows how that results in the unique challenges and rewards of being one of his apprentices.
For example, Nakazawa, a senior apprentice, explains what happened when, after years of hard work, he finally produced an acceptable egg sushi:
I had been practicing making the egg sushi for a long time. I thought I would be good at it. But when it came to making the real thing I kept messing up. I was making up to four a day. But they kept saying, “No good, no good, no good.” I felt like it was impossible to satisfy them. After three or four months, I had made over 200 that were all rejected. When I finally did make a good one Jiro said, “Now this is how it should be done.” I was so happy I cried.
Jiro’s high standards, the struggles of those around him to meet those standards, and the joy they experience when they do are recurring themes. But as the documentary shows, and as the following quote from Yamamoto makes clear, Jiro holds himself to the highest standards of all.
I’ve seen many chefs who are self-critical, but I’ve never seen a chef who is so hard on himself. He sets the standard for self-discipline. He is always looking ahead. He’s never satisfied with his work. He’s always trying to find ways to make the sushi better or to improve his skills. Even now, that’s what he thinks about all day, every day.
Jiro’s goal in his work is not to provide the largest variety of dishes, or the lowest priced dishes, or to create the biggest restaurant (let alone a chain of them). Jiro’s goal, like the dishes he serves, is simple:
All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection.
For Jiro, making perfect sushi means “creating a union between the rice and the fish” such that they are “in complete harmony.” It means serving the sushi at the ideal time, in the ideal order, after everything has been prepared as well as it can be.
Of course, in almost every case, the specific standards that Jiro applies to making sushi may be far removed from those in your own line of work. For example, in discussing one of the ways his own technique has improved over the years, Jiro says that he used to massage an octopus for thirty minutes to ensure that it would have a tender texture and not be rubbery, but now he makes sure that octopus is massaged for forty to fifty minutes.
You’ve probably never considered the optimal length of time to massage an octopus, and you may never need to. Even so, Jiro’s obsession with such matters is likely to inspire you toward excellence in whatever work you do. This is one of the key take-home values of the documentary. I submit that it would be impossible to watch this film and then not find yourself occasionally asking in regard to your own work, “What would Jiro do?”
If Jiro’s own success is any indication (his tiny restaurant has earned Michelin’s top rating), occasionally asking that question could have a very positive effect. But doing what Jiro would do may not be easy. And it may not always be advisable.
Beyond showing Jiro’s work in training apprentices, running the restaurant, and preparing food for customers, the documentary shows that when his sons were younger, Jiro was almost completely absent—absorbed then, as he is now, in the world of sushi. It also recounts stories of him working through the holidays or, after being given a prestigious award by the Japanese government, returning to work early that evening because he “got tired of sitting around.”
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a hymn both to the pursuit of excellence in work and to those who pursue it. As Jiro says:
Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate yourself to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and it is the key to being regarded honorably.
Such reverence for, dedication to, and mastery of one’s chosen pursuits is rare. And it is the essence of this documentary.
Other than a brief scene in which Jiro’s son calls for the government to regulate fishermen (so that tuna stocks can replenish), the documentary is practically flawless. Indeed, even the camera work and the soundtrack are exceptional. The camera moves slowly, particularly in scenes where food is being prepared, and the accompanying music strengthens the feeling that what you are witnessing is holy, sacred, worthy of reverence.
Thus, although a subtitled documentary about a sushi chef might initially not sound that interesting or inspirational, I urge you to give it a try.