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Review: 'Jiro Dreams Of Sushi' A Fascinating (If Sometimes Jarring) Profile Of A Master Chef

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by Simon Abrams
March 6, 2012 4:01 PM
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There’s something weirdly off-putting about the music cues in "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a documentary-cum-character study of an 85-year-old sushi “shokunin” or craftsman. Octogenarian Jiro Ono is the cheeriest of workaholics. He can’t imagine retiring, at least not until he’s either too ugly or too infirm to serve his patrons. Simply put, Ono loves his demanding job as the head chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his own 10-seat, Ginza-based sushi bar. Sukiyabashi Jiro is the smallest restaurant to be given a three-star rating by the Michelin Guide.

To Ono, being passionate about your job is the only option. Which is ostensibly why director David Gelb presents Ono and his restaurant team’s meticulous process of food preparation with a mix of dreamy awe and fetishized attention to detail. This approach sounds fitting in theory. But in practice, it’s less than satisfying. Gelb films some prep scenes of fish being pared and then turned into sushi in slow motion while the film’s bombastic and melancholic score, composed largely of music by Phillip Glass and Max Richter, does most of the talking. That music almost single-handedly destroys the emotional equilibrium of key scenes that establish the film’s main thesis, namely that work in Ono’s world is both a dream and discipline. While its director’s reverence and vision is apparent, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" often feels overdone thanks to Gelb’s unusual mix of tones.

The meals at Jiro Ono’s restaurant start at $300 and only revolve around sushi. There are no other appetizers available and you must make a reservation about a month in advance to get a seat. Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, explains that, “We’re not trying to be exclusive or elite.” Instead, it’s a point of pride for the Onos to be completely thorough. That aura of single-minded focus determines much of Gelb’s vision of Ono as a master shokunin. For example, Yoshikazu makes a point of buying the restaurant’s fish from vendors at the Tsukiji Fish Market that only specialize in tuna or shrimp.

And yet, a big part of what’s so refreshing about Jiro Ono is how modest and self-critical he is. That endearing trait is also wisely highlighted early on in the film when a prominent Japanese food critic mentions how tirelessly Jiro works to improve his recipes and to keep Sukiyasbashi Jiro’s menu fresh. Jiro readily admits that being disciplined and experienced doesn’t always reap great results. Yoshikazu gives voice to his father’s theory about how ultimately you need to be talented to succeed when he says, “Studying hard doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a good person.”

The fact that Yoshikazu is advocating this philosophy is striking since it had a direct impact on how both he and Takashi, his little brother, were raised by Jiro. Both children were, according to Jiro, only “allowed” to graduate high school. Then they started their ten-year apprenticeship with Jiro at his restaurant. Jiro is the first person to say that he was probably a negligent parent, joking about how a young Takashi, now an adult, would look at his father as a stranger in his own house.

But Jiro also actively encouraged Takashi to start his own sushi restaurant in Roppongi Hills. Yoshikazu tells us that, as Jiro’s older child, he will eventually inherit Sukiyabashi Jiro. So when Jiro encourages Takashi to branch out on his own, it’s his way of helping his youngest son to survive. There’s no excessive sentimentality to that decision; you can tell that Jiro respects his son as a peer by the way he tells Gelb’s translator that he felt Takashi was a good enough chef to start his own restaurant.

Every decision that Jiro Ono makes in "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" seems to boil down to a matter of discipline first and then affection. Which is what makes Welb’s approach to filming Jiro and his team at work so disconcerting. The use of numbers like Richter’s “Berlin by Overnight” or “Infra 5” suggest a pronounced melancholy and a hint of turbulence to Ono’s process that Gelb’s footage simply does not support. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Richter and Glass’ minimalist aesthetic were chosen to score these scenes: as compositions, they’re both structured around the notion that the slightest inflection can change the nature of the seemingly routine.

Richter and Glass’ pieces are also sampled in order to reflect Ono’s conflation of his dream job with his hard-and-fast discipline. But the pensive mood of Richter and Glass’ pieces don’t always gel with Gelb’s footage. By film’s end, Gelb hints that there might, in fact, be a reason to think that Ono’s artisanal style of cooking is endangered, namely the global over-consumption of fresh fish. But with two sons carrying on his legacy, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" should be a celebration of an artist’s accomplishments, not a premature burial. Maybe Gelb should have gotten Dan Deacon to score his film… [B]

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