Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb
Starring Jiro Ono
Released in the UK on 11 January
The premise is simple - how much would you pay for a meal of small strips of raw fish on top of finger-sized portions of subtly scented rice? This essentially defines sushi, and it is the dilemma that presents itself in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. For the past six years, one of the best-known sushi restaurants in Japan, tucked away in the basement of a Tokyo office building and housing a mere 10 seats, has maintained three coveted Michelin stars. Unfortunately, while attempting to answer why people will pay exorbitant amounts for this delicacy in a setting that is arguably far from the normal Michelin standard, this film continually departs from the main story and gets fixated on repeating the same mantra over and over - informing the audience that to be a great chef you need consistency, love of work and several other forgettable key elements. For viewers who have enjoyed the sizzling pace, excellent sound editing and sultry narration of the UK television show MasterChef, Jiro Dreams of Sushi will disappoint as much as it intrigues.
With prices starting at ¥30,000 (£222) a person for a set menu of about 20 pieces of sushi (and the restaurant accepts only cash), the food had better be good. No, it had better be something transcendent to be worthy of such expense - and the film goes to great lengths, with extensive shots of food preparation and sombre moments of reflective classical music, to prove it.
The story is more interesting than we suspect at first because we learn that Jiro Ono had a fairly disrupted pre-war childhood, marred by a drunken father who left the family early and parents “who did not take care of me”. Perhaps it is because of his exceedingly poor background that Jiro developed a unique approach to his career as a sushi master, continually pushing himself to perfect his technique. But with sushi, what precisely does that mean? Is it enough to claim that “simplicity in taste is purity”, as a Japanese food critic and Jiro himself both state, or is this nonsense? A few years ago in Japan there was a popular TV show, whose title is best translated as Can You Discern the Difference?, in which celebrities who thought they knew a thing or two about fine food and wine were put through their paces. To our viewing delight, most of these self-professed gourmets failed to distinguish between the equivalent of an £8 and a £500 bottle of claret.
It is well known that over the past several decades Tokyo has become a Mecca for international foodies and that customers there will form long lines for dishes ranging from ramen to hamburgers and even Krispy Kreme doughnuts. And such behaviour is no longer found just in Japan - it is a trend taking over East Asia. Last month in Taiwan I spent every morning and evening walking by a cake stand no bigger than a large closet where two men slaved away over hot stoves to serve a line of people that never seemed to abate. I wondered - were the snacks that good or did people wish to participate in a public ritual that made them appear as if they were in the know and could share in something superior?
Although I enjoy sushi now, I found it revolting when I first moved to Japan in the early 1990s, and my disgust was shared by many other Westerners. Decades later, we have to admit that by this point in time, even in the West, an appreciation of sushi is considered almost de rigueur for the cosmopolitan and the poseur. While the film does not enter that discussion, it occasionally treats us to exciting scenes in the world’s biggest fish market auctions, which happen in the early morning at Tsukiji. It is marred, however, by torpid scenes of Jiro sitting with his eldest son, Yoshikazu, who is waiting to take over the family restaurant, or with his second son, who already runs an outlet restaurant in another part of Tokyo, discussing why their father is the best. Jiro certainly embraces the Japanese concept of ganbaru, perseverance against all odds and until the bitter end, but we never quite fathom why.
In the course of the film, we learn that a master chef really handles only the last 5 per cent of the process, squeezing the rice into shape and mounting the small piece of fish with a lacquer of sauce on top before reaching over the counter to serve it to the now financially drained customer. The other 95 per cent of the preparation before the fish makes its final journey derives from the selfless efforts of all those in the kitchen, Jiro admits. In addition, for fresh fish and the best rice the master relies on his long-standing personal relationships with various vendors throughout the city. Jiro may receive the public accolades, but his performance depends on the support from below of those he has trained.
In underlining the hard work and dedication required to succeed, the film continually references the fact that aspiring sushi chefs need to apprentice for 10 years before being considered a shokunin, a professional craftsman in their trade. It is similar to what my brother-in-law used to say when he taught karate - “When you obtain your black belt, you have just started to become a student. All those years of preparation to get to that point just form the base of becoming a master.” In Japan, traditional occupations such as cooks in Japanese restaurants still follow the iemoto system. In this strict hierarchy, a version of the lord-vassal relationship, the ultimate reward will be the official recognition of one’s talents that can be used to enter a tightly controlled guild. It is at once both a demanding and a destructive structure, helping to lift some individuals to exacting heights of ability and at the same time crushing the hopes of many by allowing a form of bullying to govern personal relationships. Given the structural changes of the Japanese labour market, the value of such experience, whatever its merits or demerits, is growing less compatible with the demands of contemporary lifestyles. The famed sociologist Max Weber may have waxed poetic about the Protestant work ethic, but he certainly could not have envisaged 85-year-old Japanese chefs with a similar drive.
It is interesting to note that even though we admire and criticise the Japanese for their fantastic work effort - as evidenced by Jiro and his attitude towards perfecting sushi - this is a fairly recent if not mostly post-war phenomenon. During the early years of the Meiji era, in the 1870s and 1880s, foreign bosses in Japan complained that the Japanese lacked a sense of time, commitment and a positive attitude towards work. How things can change over just a century.
This documentary poses more questions than it answers but not always in a way that makes viewers hungry - either to eat or to know more. We learn how a top-class sushi restaurant runs but cannot fully appreciate the explanation because the scenes are never truly enticingly filmed in a way that allows us to savour either the spectacle or the story.