With a title like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, one expects lots of shots of sushi in the process of being made and consumed. In this regard, director David Gelb doesn’t disappoint: The film every so often practically swims in close-up shots of freshly made sushi—sauces still dripping from the fish—as well as Wong Kar-wai-like slow-motion montages of chefs cutting and massaging fish, stirring rice, and applying sauce on top. If nothing else, Gelb’s documentary is food porn par excellence, and there’s no way you won’t leave this film not hankering for some sushi of your own—unless, perhaps, you’re a vegetarian. Thankfully, the film has other, um, layers underneath its surface food fetishization.
The Jiro of the film’s title is Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef and a legend in his field. His Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant seats only 10, but it’s considered the best place for sushi in Japan, with a full meal costing upward of 300,000 yen ($300); the three stars it has been awarded by the Michelin Guide only sweetens its prestige. “No one ever has a bad experience there,” says Masuhiro Yamamoto, a food critic who’s prominently featured in the film.
In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Gelb details, among other things, the painstaking process that goes into creating these mouthwatering pieces of sushi—from picking the pieces of fish for the day to getting rice from his usual provider, and from formulating his menu for a given day to presiding over his band of chefs as they serve the sushi to his customers, many of whom have had to reserve their precious seats about a year in advance. The man is incredibly precise in his process. Not just any fish will do; in fact, at the fish market he frequents, he often participates in a tuna auction in order to procure the ones he wants. And in the kitchen, he makes sure to always have a taste of whatever sushi is made in order to make sure they all suit his palate.
It’s not too difficult to sense Gelb’s personal connection to this subject, beyond just a love of sushi. For Jiro, the making of great sushi is an art akin to, say, filmmaking, but even filmmaking requires great discipline in addition to the kind of deep-seated passion that inspires artists to create in the first place. The film portrays that discipline not only in the sheer detail with which it observes his processes, but also, to a certain extent, through technique: the repetitive nature of the sushi-making montages (with camera placements and editing schemes often repeated), and even the prominent use of Philip Glass’s by-now-familiar minimalistic style on the soundtrack.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi works most potently, then, as a feature-length metaphor for the joys and agonies of artistic creation. (In a sense, one could see this film as a corollary to Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, another film which immersed the viewer in the culinary arts in order to depict and comment on the creation of art.) The film is rather less effective as a portrait of the human beings underneath the exalted artists; Gelb clearly puts his subject on a pedestal, and threads where a more probing documentarian might have gone much deeper are generally either evaded or dropped. (What, for instance, of Jiro’s oldest son, Takashi, who professes to a love for flying and car racing, and who is expected to carry on the family business? Does he imagine a different path for his life than the one he is on right now—especially considering his younger brother owns another branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro elsewhere in Tokyo?)
The film may not be much more than hagiography, but it’s no less engrossing for that. And you certainly have to hand it to Jiro: He’s been more or less working in the restaurant industry since he was nine, and even at his old age, he still sees the making of sushi as his own personal search for perfection. “I’ll try to reach the top,” he says at one point in the film, “but no one knows where the top is.” For most artists, I imagine, that sounds about right.