You needn’t be a lover of sushi to find David Gelb’s documentary about Jiro Ono, the octogenarian chef at a tiny subterranean Tokyo restaurant that’s been awarded three stars by the Michelin guide, tasty. But it helps, since a good deal of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is made up of mouth-watering close-ups of the bite-sized dishes that he and his staff prepare each day for customers who make reservations months in advance and pay a substantial sum for the opportunity to savor Jiro’s cuisine.
For others, however, the enticement may lie less in the film’s depiction of food than in its portrayal of dedication to craft—or, some might say, obsession. “Sushi” offers a biographical sketch—Ono talks of his Dickensian childhood (he was thrown out of the house by his drunken father before he was ten, and made his way alone in the world since then), and later visits old friends in his hometown, even visiting his parents’ graves, albeit briefly and without emotion save contempt. But what we’re basically told over and over again is that Ono’s job is his life, and a constant honing of his skill the thing that defines him. One’s work, he effectively argues, makes you what you are.
That explains why, as Ono admits, he wasn’t much of a father to his two sons when they were young—he admits being gone so much, from dawn to dusk, working, that they so rarely saw him that they considered him a stranger when they did. Yet he persuaded both of them to skip college and follow in his footsteps. Takashi, the younger of them now has a sushi restaurant of his own, a mirror image of his father’s but with a more relaxed atmosphere (the elder Ono looks positively granite-like as he sternly serves his patrons, expressionless, looking as though he were daring them not to enjoy the dishes). And the older, Yoshikazu, is second-in-command at his father’s place, destined to take it over and continue the family business. That’s the traditional Japanese role for the first-born son, and one that Yoshikazu accepts with apparent equanimity. But it creates an interesting family dynamic, in which the external placidity seems to conceal simmering emotional currents no one expresses openly. And as one observer—a former apprentice to Ono now a chef himself—says, the son will have to be better than his father or else forever be thought his inferior, the sort of pressure that can’t help but be wearying.
Mention of that apprentice brings to the fore another aspect of the film—the attention given to how hard the place’s assistants are constantly driven in the search for perfection. (There are many scenes of how the menu for each day is chosen, and the dishes prepared and served.) They express admiration as well as fear, but still the atmosphere seems palpable with the highest expectations. But they’re expectations that father and son place equally on themselves. And the film raises the issue of how a single man is effectively given credit for a restaurant’s excellence though, as in this case, the vast majority of the actual work is done by others.
Other segments in “Sushi” introduce characters as obsessive in their ways as Jiro is in his—vendors at the fish market who specialize in particular types of catch (the tuna expert is especially noteworthy) and a rice dealer who actually exceeds the restaurateur in eccentricity. A brief interlude refers to how the worldwide popularity of sushi has led to over-fishing and warns about the need to protect species. And guiding us along with effusive commentary on Ono’s artistry is food critic Yamamoto Masuhiro, who comes perilously close to idolatry.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is attractively shot by Gelb, though the editing by Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer could be crisper (things do get a bit repetitive). It also boasts an insistent and eclectic musical score, ranging from pieces by Max Richter and Philip Glass to pieces by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Mozart. (The “Elvira Madigan” movement of the 21st piano concerto is an apt accompaniment to the sequence of Ono serving a twenty-course meal.)
Gelb’s film makes sushi—at least as Ono prepares it—look great, and as a tribute to the art of preparing traditional Japanese cuisine it could hardly be bettered. But it’s arguably even more fascinating as a portrait of one man’s single-minded devotion to his craft and its effect on the next generation.