So last night I finally watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary that I had been meaning to see for months. Up until about a month ago, I lived right by the IFC Center in Manhattan and the movie was literally there forever – seriously, five months – but I definitely saw like three other movies there instead. (One of which was Battle Royale, now also on Netflix!)
The documentary was visually, um, very beautiful. I mean, if you watched it for yourself and came back and told me that you didn’t think it was beautiful I could accept it for the sake of getting along with you but I wouldn’t believe anything you said ever again. Anyway, it made me want to eat sushi the way Tony does in the beginning of the sixth season of The Sopranos – which is to say, in large quantities. (Bring me all of the three kinds of tuna sushi right now!)
And I learned so much! I hadn’t even heard of egg sushi before. Neither did I know that it was okay to cook things over straw on fire in a pot nor that you have to massage squid for the better part of an hour in order to make it taste good. I also learned about Japanese fish markets and that there’s a fish/tuna shortage which I had no idea about but I guess kind of makes sense since sushi is literally everywhere in Japan.
I thought that the major aspects of Jiro Ono’s life highlighted in the film were compelling. First of all, he’s an 85-year old chef working full-time, as he’s done for over 60 years. Secondly, it seems that he makes very simple food in a restaurant with only ten seats – simplicity is kind of his thang – yet has won all sorts of awards and a three-star Michelin rating. He also has two very adult sons who are more or less living in his shadow, the elder as the heir to the throne at his Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro and the younger at a nearly identical restaurant. (Actually, the restaurant is apparently a mirror image in terms of design.)
From a storytelling perspective, I wished that the film had focused a bit more on Jiro’s personal history. Mostly, I would have liked to see more about his career trajectory. The details about his childhood and why he entered the workforce at a very young age seemed sketchy. I’m sure those experiences have a lot to do with his style as a chef, a boss and a parent. (But let’s be honest, I could have missed something considering I was watching this in my living room and probably not paying the best attention.) His trip back to his childhood home to visit friends with his elder son was certainly revealing – it turns out he had been a troublemaker who underperformed in school and that he still has a pronounced distaste for his long-dead parents – but I still felt that more could have been said about him as a person and less about him as an award winner and master sushi chef. (Not because he isn’t deserving of being an award winner and master sushi chef, but because I don’t need a food critic to tell me so in thirty different interview segments to understand that.)
However, there’s a very good chance that the kind of in-depth autobiographical interview I desired wasn’t something that Jiro Ono wished to give. I suppose that’s fine. I feel that I learned enough about Jiro Ono the Person through interviews with his sons and his staff members – who generally train with him for ten years before they are allowed to make sushi for guests at the restaurant – and the few personal anecdotes he shared. (Such as his elder son thinking that he was a stranger when he came home to sleep for a few hours on Sundays and the circumstances of the only picture that he had with his father, which was dated 1927 or 1928.) I guess I just wish that the story had been told in a slightly different way?
Anyway, I can’t complain too much about this movie because I did find it extremely engaging, both in terms of its focus on a swath of the world that I’m eager to learn about and its visual style. And it made me want to go to Japan now more than ever. (Seriously, it’s my dream trip. If you’re willing to finance it, you can reach me in the comments.)