Tuesday, September 18, 2012


David Gelb's documentary about 85 year-old sushi master Jiro Ono -- whose tiny restaurant in Tokyo has a one-month waiting list, no menu, fewer than 10 seats and no indoor toilet -- is a mostly deadpan, appreciably austere study in craftsmanship, passionate work ethic, and the burdens of tradition and heredity.

Jiro, who makes one piece at a time and watches you eat with a grim, cat-like visage, left his unhappy home at the age of nine, describes how he was forced to succeed by having no other alternative, opining that it's the worst thing parents can do to offer their children a comfortable home they can always come back to, no matter what. His own son, Yoshikazu, now in his 40s or 50s, may not live with his father, but he works diligently by his side, as he has done since his teens; his own situation is in some ways enviable, as he has learned from the very best, but also awful. As one of his colleagues notes, Jiro earned his top-of-the-line three-star Michelin rating as a sushi chef on the basis of his son's preparations exclusively, and Yoshi will never be recognized for his own expertise once he inherits the family restaurant unless he somehow manages to become twice the master his father is.

As with any film rooted in food (BABETTE'S FEAST comes to mind), it's frustrating not to be able to sample the delicious, highly textured food we're shown, or to be told (for example) what Jiro is brushing onto his sushi just before he serves it -- oil? soy sauce? or something still more exotic? But as a food critic interviewee explains, Jiro's mastery is rooted in his ability to reduce the artform of sushi to its barest, yet most flavorful essentials, a useful detail that sends the viewer's own tastebuds on a reductive journey of their own past experience. Like the subject himself, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is a humble but centered and expressive film about the pursuit and imposition of divine artistic order upon one of life's greatest pleasures.

Viewed via Netflix.    

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