The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi has quietly been getting rave reviews from chefs and food writers but relatively less attention from mainstream film critics, probably because of its genre and language (it’s entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles) rather than its content. Following one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world and exploring his obsessive attention to detail and the demands he places on his employees and vendors, the film also features some of the most beautiful shots of food I have ever seen, the kind of cinematography that will have you pouring soy sauce on the floor in anticipation. (It’s available on Netflix Instant, which is how I watched it.)
Jiro Ono operates one of the world’s best-known and most exclusive sushi restaurants, a ten-seat establishment in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro that only serves sushi – no appetizers, no soba dishes, just the fish. He was 85 at the time the documentary was filmed, yet still works at the restaurant every day, usually serving the fish but at this point preparing relatively little of it himself, instead overseeing the rigid structure of the kitchen, where his eldest son, who will one day take over the business, is the de facto headmaster. Jiro’s obsession with quality and long track record have given him an inside track with key vendors, including a rice vendor who won’t sell Jiro’s favorite strain of rice to a large hotel that asks for it, while also making internships at his restaurant into ten-year apprenticehoods where anything less than perfection is unacceptable.
The film documents some of the more unusual kitchen practices at Sukiyabashi Jiro, although many of these are made possible by the restaurant’s small menu. They age their tuna for up to ten days, and they massage the octopus for as long as 50 minutes, nearly twice as long as other restaurants, to tenderize the meat. (I’ve had octopus sushi once or twice and hated it because it was rubbery. Now at least I know it doesn’t have to be that way.) Jiro and his son have exacting standards for flavor, texture, and preparation that I don’t want to spoil for viewers, as seeing some of these practices in action was among the highlights of the film.
Jiro’s two sons also play significant roles in the film as Japanese custom has placed them in very different roles of succession. His eldest son, Yoshikazu, runs Jiro’s restaurant now, while Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, apprenticed there but had to leave and start his own restaurant, a mirror image of Jiro’s, because the eldest son is the traditional successor in Japanese culture. Yet this subplot of sorts isn’t that dramatic because Yoshikazu doesn’t express any of the regret or frustration you’d expect a son in that situation to express – waiting for his father to retire or, more morbidly, to die, so he can take over the business. Yoshikazu didn’t seem terribly unhappy with his lot, and as it is, he handles much of the responsibility, something his father acknowledges.
One of those key responsibilities is acquiring the fish each day from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, forming by far the most informative part of the film for me. I’d read about this market before, including a chapter in Trevor Corson’s indispensable book The Story of Sushi, but had never seen an inside look at the institution or how buyers choose their fish. Watching Jiro’s primary tuna vendor walk around a giant warehouse space, poking at giant whole tuna, taking bits of flesh and examining them with a flashlight, wasn’t gripping – really nothing in this film is – but it was enlightening.
There’s a brief discussion at the end of the film about the future of sushi and of fish as a food source in general, mostly led by Yoshikazu, who blames the spread of what I would call cheap sushi – the crap you get at the grocery store, at non-sushi restaurants, or even at awful chain sushi places like Ra that specialize in bland, lower-quality fish dressed up with toppings like a damn ice cream sundae. Sushi shouldn’t be available in packages of eight maki for $7 at the supermarket. Yoshikazu doesn’t get too far into solutions, although he mentions his own vested interest in maintaining a supply of high-quality fish; given Japan’s refusal to cut down on or eliminate its harvesting and purchasing of bluefin tuna, I’m not surprised that he held back, but I imagine he and his father would carry significant weight if they came out in favor of broad bans on environmentally damaging fishing practices.
What Jiro Dreams of Sushi might lack for some viewers is drama; most good documentaries document something more than a man and his restaurant, running into some sort of conflict along the way or covering a past event that was inherently dramatic. This is an homage to a man’s lifelong obsession with his work, with approaching perfection asymptotically, with preserving an ancient cuisine while elevating it to its highest level. It is also pornography for sushi-lovers, with mindblowing images of nigiri made by Jiro, his son, and the three other men (only men – women don’t make sushi in Japan, another issue they neglected to address) who work there. I’ve never seen fish that looked like that. It’ll make you want to, say, find the next Yu Darvish to go scout over in Tokyo – as long as you have a month’s notice to make a reservation at Jiro’s place.