In a corner of Tokyo’s Ginza subway station sits a simple little restaurant of white walls and blond wood and just ten seats –Sukiyabashi Jiro. And in it, presides the oldest chef ever to earn a three star Michelin rating for his eatery, a stern, dour man who, in a quiet variation of Soup Nazi/”Cheeseburger-Cheeseburger” seriousness, reads unsuspecting visitors the law.
“No appetizers.” It is sushi only. Prices? They START at 30,000 yen. No walk-ins, reservations are required two-months in advance. And no, I DON’T have any brochures.
But land that reservation, sit down at one of those ten seats, and Jiro Ono will conduct a symphony of sushi — perfectly marinated, sliced and hand-patted fish wrapped around delicate, immaculately seasoned rice.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a movie as elegant, spare and tantalizing as its subject. In 80 minutes, filmmaker David Gelb captures a mild-mannered task-master who practices a zen approach to seemingly uncomplicated work — making sushi.
“You must dedicate yourself to mastering your craft,” Jiro says. “Every dining experience there “has to be better than the last time.”
And he has passed this on to his somewhat willing sons, men who gave up their own dreams of college or sports to serve their father and learn from the master.
Jiro, 85 when Gelb and his crew caught up with him, is a shokunin, a master craftsman who is passing on his legacy both to his sons and assorted apprentices who must serve him ten years before he’ll call them shokunin.
Gelb gives us some of Jiro’s background — he grew up poor, and served in the Japanese military during World War II — and takes us behind the scenes of one of the great restaurants in the world. Oldest son Yoshikazu sighs as he slaps mats of seaweed wrap against a hibachi grill. He wanted to be a racecar driver. But his life, chosen by his father, has him pedaling a bike to the seafood market at dawn, working with his tuna expert, his octopus guy, his halibut, abalone and eel vendors, each expert in his own right.
One of the underplayed jokes here is how Jiro seems to have bent this world to his will, his uncompromising standards. Yoshikazu is 50, and all that faces him is inheriting the restaurant from his father, taking on dad’s life’s work. Jiro’s younger son runs his own high-end sushi place, a mirror image of dad’s ten-seat diner.
Vendors — rice guys, fish guys — talk of being ready to retire, not in the best health. But they don’t because they won’t let Jiro down.
Gelb lets Jiro educate us on sushi — the difference between fatty tuna, “medium” tua and ruby-colored lean tuna. He lets Jiro bemoan the proliferation of sushi as a food the world over and the awful over-fishing that leads to.
And Gelb photographs each dish as it comes off Jiro’s hands — minimalist works of art that melt in your eyes.
Everything is understated here, and that includes the conflict that normally drives any film, even a documentary. Jiro could retire. His eldest son is every bit as good as he is.
But does Yoshikazu live and breathe sushi? Does he dream of new sushi ideas? Only Jiro, the zen master of bite-sized morsels that seem to pop right off the screen and into your mouth.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and some smoking.
Cast: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono
Credits: Directed by David Gelb. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:22