Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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This 81 minute documentary about the 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 art form and done old style–rice is cooked not in an electric cooker but on the stove and kept warm in a basket and  katsuo (bonito) is smoked over an open straw fire. And while the film focusses on the tension between Jiro and his first son Yoshikazu’s imminent (for at least 15 years) inheritance of Jiro’s tiny 10 seater sushi bar in Sukiyabashi, Tokyo (graced by U.S. President Barak Obama on his 2014 visit to Japan), the real tension is in the anachronism that is Jiro’s world and the global eating phenomenon that is now “sooshi”-mostly cheap, mayonnaise infested rolls that are made by sushi robots 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 Calfornia and tuna mayo rolls.

What is fascinating to see in this film is the dedication to craftsmanship and the aesthetic of sushi. For Jiro’s sushi begins with procuring the freshest fish, requires great skill in 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 Jesus style), the years of discipline and dedication (10 years before you even get to make nigiri) and fine attention to detail. But what this film lacked is an exploration of the skill and craft and art 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 had already seen the inspiring 2008 documentary about Jiro on NHK, Japan’s public TV network, which explored in mesmerising detail, Jiro’s obsession with perfection in simplicity. This highly acclaimed “Professional” series airs weekly in Japan and features the work and professionalism of various people who are leaders their respective fields, and Jiro Ono’s documentary aired shortly after his shop received 3 stars in the inaugural and highly controversial Michelin Guide to Tokyo, 2008.

In the NHK doco, there is  a telling scene in which Jiro and his employees discuss the curing of saba (mackerel). Saba is a very fatty fish and must be cured in salt for a number of hours, then rinsed clean, then cured in rice vinegar for a number of hours. But the curing process is part science, part art–there’s no recipe, and it depends on the fattiness of the fish, which you can only guess at. In the NHK doco, the 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 “Dreams”, this scene is a mere montage and the saba curing drama is merely alluded to. A shame.

Also included in the NHK doco is the result of a rice grain counting research–in which the number of rice grains in Jiro’s nigiri is counted. I forget the number of nigiri actually counted, but between them, there was a difference of only about 1-2 rice grains per each nigiri…meaning almost every nigiri Jiro makes is the same. The rice grains were facing mostly in the same direction too, which I’d always thought was an urban sushi myth, but not according to the NHK doco on Jiro….

Being 85, 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 which will be no longer. It is less about Japan, or sushi, but more about a time when things were…simpler. When men were men, when women ate less (there’s a scene in which Jiro tells his customers that he makes his sushi slightly smaller for the ladies…, in fact the only scene where women appear), and fresh fish was available. Post tsunami and Fukushima, 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 only be 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

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