Sushi: The Global Catch is all over the place. The documentary opens as a study of a day-to-day business and concludes as a plea for environmental consciousness, and while the transformation is unexpected, it doesn’t entirely work. The first person we see in director Mark Hall’s film is Mamoru Sugiyama as he selects fish and other goods from his preferred vendors for his Michelin-starred sushi restaurant. Sugiyama and his workers speak to the camera, telling us the number of years it takes for an apprentice to graduate from common chores to directly creating the sushi for an audience (about seven) as well as other standards of practice that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But with sushi enjoying an unexpectedly global popularity, Sugiyama finds it increasingly more difficult to attain fish, such as the coveted Blue Fin Tuna, that meet his exacting standards.
Sugiyama, unlike Jiro, lacks the presence to sustain a feature film, and Hall, perhaps realizing this, shifts the film’s action to Austin to briefly speak with Tyson Cole, a young American who arbitrarily got into the sushi business (he was broke and a Japanese restaurant was the only establishment that responded to the 30 résumés he desperately distributed) only to eventually define himself as a creator of distinctive rolls that fuse American and Japanese sensibilities. The film then segues to San Francisco, where a passionate young man named Casson Trenor has opened the world’s first “sustainable” sushi restaurant, which means that it doesn’t serve fish, such as the blue fin tuna, whose populations are rapidly dwindling. Trenor has created a guilt-free restaurant that allows consumers to eat sushi without contributing to the alarming plundering that’s accelerating the expected extinction of more valuable fish.
The second half of the film is a direct plea on Trenor’s behalf. Hall interviews scientists and assorted others who testify to the dangers of the unchecked fishing that’s required to sate the world’s appetite for sushi. Eighty percent of the blue fin tuna’s population, for example, has already been consumed, and its extinction would result in a proliferation of the smaller creatures the tuna eat, thus significantly and rapidly altering the oceanic ecosystem.
Sushi: The Global Catch has some lively moments, such as Trenor’s heated debate with a tuna farmer whose embraces a controversial method that consumes more fish than it produces, but the doc is ultimately a dry endeavor that feels closer in spirit to an Afterschool Special than a full-blooded movie. It sags from a lack of focus (it’s regrettable that Hall didn’t focus entirely on Trenor and his blossoming business), as well as from a pointed lack of ambiguity. Wiping out a species because it tastes somewhat better than others is indisputably ill-advised and egotistical, yet Hall spends 74 long minutes convincing us anyway.