I’ll admit that I don’t get excited about documentaries. Sometimes it seems like they’re trying to shove some agenda down my throat, and other times, they are simply boring.
But I love sushi, so when I saw “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix, I decided to give it a go.
David Gelb’s film follows Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi aficionado and culinary artist.
Ono is exactly what you’d expect: a small, bald, wise-looking Asian man who’s extremely good with a sashimi knife.
He runs an unassuming sushi bar with his son in the basement of a Tokyo office building.
It doesn’t sound interesting, I know.
But somewhat unexpectedly, Gelb makes the film a Zen journey. He doesn’t limit himself to stale, static shots of talking heads. Instead, he fills the frame with beautiful, macro shots of sashimi.
The film’s narrative centers on Ono’s quest to perfect the art of sushi. He offers his insights on striving for perfection and on the intricacies of sushi.
The movie also focuses on his son’s apprehension, as he must eventually fill Ono’s shoes.
In other interviews, notable restaurant owners speak wide-eyed about Ono’s devotion to food.
But in a way, the most beautiful parts are the montages of sushi preparation.
Gelb owes a lot of the film’s artistry to Ono, as he gracefully makes each piece of sushi a simple art piece.
Ono is dedicated to this no-frills sushi. He doesn’t prepare “caterpillar rolls,” and there certainly aren’t any “geek girls gone wild” rolls.
Instead each morsel is quickly paired with the bare essentials. Most nigiri in the film consist of just fish and rice; there isn’t any wasabi or soy sauce.
He is careful to keep the sushi as pure as possible. And at times it seems like each piece is an offering to some higher being.
Ono even recommends that each piece of sushi is eaten immediately, so that it’s at body temperature. And he also entirely foregoes chopsticks, requiring customers to eat with their hands.
Some may find the process a bit far-fetched and pretentious. But the amazing thing is that during the movie, I was never left with that impression.
Ono just seems too dedicated, humble and world-renowned to fuss with trifles such as ostentatious showmanship.
I mean, his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro is a Michelin three-star winner. For perspective, the Michelin website describes the three-star award as, “exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey.”
And if you don’t put your faith in critics (which you should), the restaurant is so busy that prospective customers must make reservations two months in advance.
The whole essence of his restaurant epitomizes elegance and sophistication.
And Gelb’s soundtrack, composed of Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Philip Glass, makes the experience even more beautiful.
Apart from the elegance, the story is enthralling. Alone, Ono’s incessant routine is fascinating.
“I’ve never once hated this job,” Ono said.
“I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m 85 years old, I don’t feel like retiring.”
Ono also strives for an almost unattainable perfection.
“There is always a yearning to achieve more,” he said. “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”
This ethos that surrounds Ono makes the whole experience entertaining. The audience is left wondering how he’s able to stay so driven and set on the singular goal of improving his sushi.
But it doesn’t end there.
Fifty-year-old Yoshikazu, Ono’s first son, has spent the majority of his life apprenticing under his father, waiting for his moment.