Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a remarkable act of empathy that’s been made in a direct, succinct manner that’s greatly appropriate to its subject. David Gelb’s documentary is the story of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old Japanese man widely considered the greatest sushi chef in the world. Beginning his apprenticeship when he was 10, Jiro is now the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant tucked away in a Tokyo subway corner that seats only 10 diners at a time. Reservations, we learn early on, must be made a month in advance, and a meal, comprised solely of sushi, will run a minimum of 30,000 yin, or $350 at the time of the film’s shooting.
Gelb establishes in the first few moments that Jiro is cast from the kind of stern, unyielding mold that characterizes most Westerner’s notions of the old-school Japanese man. Speaking directly to the camera, Jiro tells us that a man must pick his occupation early on, and spend the remainder of his life trying to perfect it. Then we see Jiro in his restaurant, standing straight as a yardstick, inspecting a piece of sushi and advising on the depth of the chef’s slice.
Jiro’s opening declaration of a man’s aim informs the entire film. Jiro, who’s in his restaurant at least 15 hours daily, with only a few holidays observed throughout the year, is an artist who isn’t outwardly given to superfluous gesture or existential torment. A person must find their talent and hone it and, after that, do the damn work. And Gelb, an American, admirably avoids the kind of editorializing that could result from an outsider’s point of reference. Jiro’s thoughts and actions are recorded directly and head on, and we’re allowed, with clarity that’s unusual for an American film, to see the process of someone doing actual day-to-day work.
Gelb shows us the picking of the fish and rice from the markets—run by people who are themselves considered to be masters of their craft—that Jiro deems to be worthy of his restaurant. We see the massaging of squid that’s necessary to work it into a desirably edible consistency. Even the rice, an ingredient many take for granted, requires special attention. Once the extensive preparation is complete and the presentation of the food is to commence, we see Jiro’s hands sculpting pieces of fish (this film will make foodies’ mouths water) with a speed and certainty that belie common American notions of the capabilities of a man his age. And the sushi is just a portion of the experience: We see Jiro surveying his diners, adjusting his serving methods to their gender, their speed of eating, as well as to their left- or right-handedness.
An obsession like Jiro’s has a price, of course. Jiro has two sons who are both clearly haunted by their father’s past inattentiveness and unyielding pressure, as well as by his current status as a global legend. Yoshikazu, the eldest, is expected to work under his father until he should, per Japanese custom, assume control of Sukiyabashi Jiro once Jiro retires or dies—a daunting expectation that, given Jiro’s reputation, almost damns Yoshikazu to comparable failure. Takashi, after decades of apprenticeship under Jiro, is granted his father’s blessing to open a more relaxed restaurant of his own that still mirrors Sukiyabashi Jiro.
The loving but somewhat strained relationship between Jiro, Yoshikazu, and Takashi is the heart of the film, and it qualifies Gelb’s hero-worship a bit. In many ways, Yoshikazu arises as the tragic hero of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, as he’s a talented, diligent man who probably has the ability to have become a major figure in his own right given differing circumstances. That Yoshikazu never vocally acknowledges such possibilities, of course, is a testament to both the nature of his culture as well as Gelb’s own decency and tact, though the filmmaker saves a quietly heartbreaking bit for the very end. Michelin’s inspectors, who turned Jiro into a culinary powerhouse when they awarded Sukiyabashi Jiro their coveted three-star rating, are said to have attended the restaurant three times. And Yoshikazu was their chef every time.
Director/cinematographer David Gelb has made Jiro Dreams of Sushi in a clean, straightforward style that reflects the pared simplicity of Jiro's own methods. The whites are vibrant, the greens lush, and the sushi itself has been shot from a slight low angle to achieve a quality that feels nearly three-dimensional. The transfer sports a nearly flawless image that honors Gelb's immersive you-are-there approach. The sound mix is nearly as impressive, particularly in terms of preserving the subtlety of the film's soundtrack, which includes shrewdly chosen pieces by Tchaikovsky and Philip Glass.
On their commentary track, director David Gelb and editor Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer manage to be conversational and personal while still providing an informative look at the process of making the film. (For example, Gelb says that Glass's music was chosen because it often gradually cumulates in effect from a series of repetitions, like the meals Jiro serves.) The deleted scenes are actually interesting, almost acting as complementary short films, while "The Masters" vignette, which is essentially more deleted scenes, provides additional context on the various food markets seen in the film. A brief sushi gallery affords one a second glance at Jiro's creations.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, one of the more graceful and poignant films of the year so far, receives an appropriately elegant Blu-ray presentation.