A passion for perfection
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
David Gelb's documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" conjures up well-worn adages. "Practice makes perfect" is the first that leaps out watching chef Jiro Ono's tireless quest for excellence. And the appearance of his unassuming, subterranean 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is indeed deceiving; the hole-in-the-wall touts a three-star Michelin rating, and it was the first sushi restaurant to earn the distinction.
And yet, for all the trite sayings that come to mind, the story feels exceptional thanks to the subject, a self-made perfectionist still pursuing culinary transcendence.
You have to fall in love with your job, Ono lectures toward the beginning of the film. This slight, bald octogenarian's adoration of his work is less apparent than his steadfast diligence. He follows the same sequence every day (with the exception of holidays, which he dreads), right down to getting on the same subway car at the same time each morning. He looms over his employees with a watchful eye and samples their creations with Goldilocks-like precision. He even, as the title indicates, imagines new sushi combinations in his sleep.
In addition to a chronicle of Ono's celebrated career, the film takes viewers on a fascinating tour of Tokyo's fish markets. Superior sushi comes from equally outstanding seafood, and Ono's suppliers are as meticulous as he is when scoping out and selecting a tuna or squid. There are also elements of family drama, as Ono's son and apprentice, Yoshikazu Ono, mulls the inevitability of one day running the restaurant. His youngest son, meanwhile, operates another sushi outpost, albeit one with a much more laid-back vibe.
The movie tends to be spare, recounting day-to-day routines in the beginning but ultimately settles into an engaging, sometimes humorous rhythm. Interviews with former co-workers and acquaintances add some nuance to the chef's serious facade. Those around him tend to look upon Ono's work with a mix of bafflement and awe, as if to say, "Can you believe this guy?" Even one of Japan's well-known food critics admits to being intimidated by sidling up to Ono's sushi bar. It's easy to see why, as the elderly man forms each piece of sushi with a diamond cutter's attention to detail, and the seemingly delicious morsels end up looking like little works of art.
Some portions of Gelb's film seem to provoke more questions than offer answers. While there's a lot of talk about Ono's father's absence, as well as leaving home at a young age, it's unclear who exactly raised him. And while much of the movie is devoted to the chef's relationship with his two sons and their upbringings, there is hardly a mention of the chef's wife.
But overall, this is a pleasant and often enlightening journey. Plus it offers credence to those beloved old sayings. Hard work really does pay off.
Contains mild thematic elements. In Japanese and English with English subtitles.