Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This 81 minute documentary about 85 year old sushi chef Jiro Ono (he was 85 when this movie was made in 2012), better known in Japan as Sukiyabashi Jiro, is not about Jiro dreaming of sushi, but dreaming of a past where women aren’t seen or heard, kitchen apprenticeship is feudal and sushi making is a highly skilled craft done old style. Which means rice is cooked on the stove and kept warm in a basket, not in an electric cooker; katsuo (bonito) is smoked over an open straw fire, and nori is toasted by hand.

And while the film focuses on the tension between Jiro and his first son Yoshikazu’s imminent (for at least 15 years) succession to inherit Jiro’s 10 seater sushi bar in Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi, the real tension is between the anachronism that is Jiro’s world and the global eating phenomenon of ‘sooshi’-mostly cheap, mayonnaise infested rolls sold as fast food from Moscow to LA to Sydney. Just look at the publicity shot-six men sporting scary eyebrows and starched whites-it’s symbolic of a sushi that is far removed from the sushi go round world of California rolls.

What I find fascinating about Jiro is his dedication to craftsmanship and the aesthetic of sushi. For Jiro’s sushi begins with procuring the freshest fish, which is no simple ask. Then there are the years of training evident in the highly skilled work of cleaning, filleting, preparing the fish (witness the fine skill of the live anago or sea eel being filleted, it’s head skewered to the chopping board), the discipline, patience, and devotion (10 years before you even get to make nigiri) as well as the astute attention to detail. But what this film lacks is a more thorough exploration of this craft behind sushi making that is undoubtedly dying, ironically, with the global spread and rising popularity of sushi.

Perhaps my disappointment with Jiro Dreams of Sushi is due to the fact that I’d seen the inspiring 2008 documentary about Jiro on Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, which explored in mesmerising detail Jiro’s obsession with perfection in simplicity. Part of the highly acclaimed ‘Professional’ series featuring people who are leaders in their respective fields, this program about Jiro Ono aired shortly after his restaurant controversially received 3 stars in the inaugural and Michelin Guide to Tokyo 2008.

And in this NHK program, there is  a telling scene in which Jiro and his employees discuss the curing of saba (mackerel). Saba is a fatty fish and must be cured in salt, rinsed clean, then cured in rice vinegar for a number of hours. But the process is part science, part art, part guesswork-there’s no recipe, just the deft hand of experience. The saba curing scene is played out in length and in the end, Jiro decides the curing is not sufficient, and that day’s saba (about 4-5 fish) are thrown out. In  the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, saba curing is merely alluded to. A shame, for here lies the daily drama of the sushi chef.

Also included in the NHK story is some curious research. Rice grains in Jiro’s nigiri were counted to ascertain how uniform each nigiri is. The result of the research? Almost every piece of sushi Jiro makes has the same number of rice grains. In addition, an examination of a cross sectional slice of various nigiri hand made by Jiro showed that the rice grains were facing in the same direction. Intriguing…or just sushi myth making…?

Jiro is a legend in his own lifetime. And Jiro Dreams of Sushi is really worth seeing if you want a glimpse into a world that will be no longer. It is less about Japan, or sushi, but more about a time when things were…well different. When men dominated, when women ‘ate less’ (there’s a scene in which Jiro tells his customers that he makes his sushi slightly smaller for the womenfolk… the only scene where women appear), and fresh fish was abundantly available. Post tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, fresh fish for sushi is harder to get-and by some estimates, 2048 might spell the end to commercial fishing. Soon, all of us may be merely dreaming of sushi…

Jiro Dreams of Sushi website

NHK “Professional” Jiro doco website

Sukiyabashi Jiro English website

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

Jiro Dreams of Sushi by Director David Gelb, originally released in 2012