David Gelb’s beautiful film follows Jiro Ono, an 85 year-old sushi master, the only to gain a coveted Michelin 3-Star rating, on his continuing quest for sushi perfection and the affect this has on his loved ones.
“There are five attributes to a great chef:
1. Take your work seriously.
2. Aspire to improve.
3. Maintain cleanliness.
4. Be a better leader than a collaborator.
5. Be passionate about your work.”
- Yamamoto, Food Critic and friend to Jiro Ono.
“You have to fall in love with your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill” – Jiro Ono
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a biographical documentary about 85 year old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the greatest sushi chef in the world. Every day, bar national holidays, he goes to work in his humble ten-seater restaurant, incongruously located down the escalators of a Tokyo subway station. It’s the first restaurant of its kind to have been awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review and hundreds of sushi fans travel internationally every year to sample his twenty piece set menu, which changes daily, depending on the seasonal availability of the finest quality fish.
As well as providing us with a window into the mind and soul of a great artist, the film goes deeper into Ono’s career, examining what drives him to excellence and the impact of his perfectionism on the people around him.
The chef’s dedication to his job has largely defined his life and has had a huge effect on his role as a husband and father. He leaves the house at six in the morning and doesn’t return until after evening service, he was more or less absent during the early childhood of his two sons. At one point in the film he tells an anecdote about how, on an exceptional day when he was not at work, and was instead snoozing on the sofa, his youngest son asked his mother who the strange man in the living room was.
Both his sons have subsequently trained under him, having been persuaded not to go to university, but instead to join the family business. The youngest opened a similar restaurant in another part of the city, while the oldest works under Ono and will one day replace him as head chef. But at 85, Ono certainly doesn’t “feel like retiring yet!”
The film looks particularly at this paternal relationship – Yoshikazu, the oldest son, at the age of fifty still stands in his father’s shadow. Every day he works under his watchful eye, hoping to absorb as much knowledge and skill as possible before his sensei inevitably retires, or dies, at his post.
Yamamoto, a food critic and another important character in the film,observes that the son will need to exceed his father’s legendary skill to become appreciated as an equal talent. This is unquestionably a difficult position, yet Yoshikazu treats the pressure with great equanimity, giving us a deep insight into Japanese culture.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a feature debut for director David Gelb and what a remarkably assured effort it is. Beautifully shot, with a soundtrack from Philip Glass and Johan Sebastian Bach, it’s a highly polished piece. Gelb explains, “I wanted to show people that sushi is so much more than putting fish on rice. Jiro has created an art form. And his philosophy is to always improve your craft, to always look ahead to the future. That is something that anyone can relate to.”
Importantly, the piece also looks at the ecological impact that a growing demand for sushi is having on the environment. In one scene, we are introduced to fish dealers at the market with whom the Ono family have strong long-term relationships. They are universally concerned about the rapidly shrinking availability of certain fish species and the impact this will have on business, the legacy that they will leave for their children.
Gelb briefly, but pithily, examines how modern fishing methods, as well as the international high-street demand for sushi, has torn huge chunks out of the population of fish in our oceans – an issue that, he argues, we should all be more aware of.