On…Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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I watched this documentary a little while ago after seeing it at the top of numerous critical review sites and just hearing a general good buzz around it. Whilst I’ve watched quite a few documentaries in my time, it’s not a genre I’m particularly familiar with. I suspect for a lot of people, including myself, documentaries bring to mind the kind of fuzzy VHS tapes that your teachers made you watch with their outdated information and interviews with people who had terrible haircuts. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, however, is light years away from those experiences, and it manages to be a delightful brief insight into the life of Jiro, a world-class sushi chef who hails from humble beginnings. Jiro himself is quietly passionate, incredibly dedicated to his work but remains steadfastly modest, and watching how his restaurant operates and his thought processes behind the sushi he creates was sublime. The documentary itself is incredibly high quality and extremely well done, hitting emotional high notes as well as providing a wonderful window into a kind of lifestyle that most people will never experience.

Now the reason I write this post now is because two nights ago, my boyfriend and I attempted to make sushi. I had a go, and was pretty bad at it, though it’s something I definitely want to try again and improve at. I’ve always been a huge fan of Japanese cuisine. I remember when I was very young (younger than 12 years old at least) my family and I would go to a Japanese restaurant in Chinatown. It was in the upstairs of a building and fairly well hidden, but alas, I cannot remember its name and don’t know if it still exists. I would order prawn tempura and devour plates and plates full of them. I don’t think I actually ate sushi until I was a bit older, but it became a kind of special treat for my family to go out for sushi. I also remember when my mother made sushi and I brought it with me into school for my lunch, and all my classmates crowded around to see what this mysterious foodstuff was. A few even ventured a try at it, but the general feel was ‘ewww raw fish’ and that scared a lot of people away.

Our first attempt at prawn tempura rolls

Our first attempt at prawn tempura rolls

Nowadays, sushi is fairly standard run of the mill food, at least in London anyway. In the part of London where I live (Bloomsbury), I’m certain there are more sushi restaurants than McDonalds. It’s pretty much a lunch time staple for working business people. As such, there’s a lot of demand for it and in my opinion, it’s led to the devaluation of good quality sushi and the overpricing of crappy, ‘fast-food’ type sushi. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so much a sushi snob so much as I value good quality for good value. Unfortunately my limited student budget means that I’ve never had the chance to try real high quality sushi, but I like to think that I can at least differentiate between low quality and medium quality sushi. Anyway, am I right in thinking sushi is pretty mainstream these days? Is there still a stigma around it in the West, as there was when I was younger (raw fish apparently freaks people out)? Or have the numerous Wasabi’s and Yo Sushi’s changed that perception? I’m still rather cautious asking my friends out to get sushi; so many people I know seem to comply only because it’s something trendy and exotic, not because they genuinely enjoy it. It breaks my heart to see someone order literally just one piece of prawn nigiri and nothing else. Though I think I’m straying into pretentious hipster territory here when I start accusing people of being sushi posers…

Ah wait, how did this post turn into a general ramble about sushi? I meant to talk about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the amazing documentary about Jiro Ono, the sushi master! The first thing I noticed about this documentary was how sharp and well defined everything was; I mean, I’ve seen HD but not like this. Even on my sub-optimal laptop screen, the cinematography of this documentary was incredibly high quality. Each shot was beautifully constructed, and the music was tastefully done in all scenes, and it was all very well paced. I felt like the documentary quality was meant to mimic the extremely high quality of Jiro’s sushi, and the documentary makers have really done a good job of conveying that message. They really give a loving portrayal of the lives of Jiro and his subordinates, and focus on all the relevant and interesting details.

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The story of Jiro, briefly, is that as a child his parents pretty much abandoned him. He worked his way up though as an adult, and became tirelessly devoted to the art of making sushi. He honed his taste buds, his sushi making technique and now, at the ripe age of 85, he owns a three-Michelin star restaurant: the only sushi restaurant in the world to hold that accolade. The documentary shows the precision, the dedication and the absolute hard work that is poured into every step of the sushi process. From picking the fish out at the fish market early in the morning, to the vigilant preparation of rice, each of Jiro’s trainees and employees have been working at the craft for years. Each step takes a lot of time and careful precision. For example, his octopuses have to be massaged for at least 45 minutes. Another example is when one trainee shared his story of how he had to perfect his technique of making tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) and only after making over 50 failed attempts was one approved by Jiro. He said that he felt like punching the air and celebrating when he got his approval, so hard earned was that small nod, but of course, in the incredibly subdued atmosphere of the restaurant, it would not have been appropriate. All of this preparation combines into a sort of restrained theatre when Jiro serves his customers. Carefully picking up and shaping each piece of sushi, he gently places each piece in front of his customers and then, he steps back and observes them as they eat. He explains to the cameras that he watches his audience so as to adjust each piece to their preferences; for example, if he notices someone left-handed, he will place the next piece of sushi on a more optimal part of the plate for the left handed person to reach. He watches, and he learns, and he uses that information to improve on both service and quality.

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The documentary also highlights other aspects of the sushi restaurant, particularly the stories of Jiro’s subordinates including his sons. Jiro’s eldest son Yoshikazu is 50 years old but still works under his father as an apprentice. He will inherit the restaurant one day, and the most worrying thing about that is whether it will lose some of its prestige when Jiro can no longer work. The documentary portrays Yoshikazu very sympathetically and one has to wonder if this was a deliberate move to try and improve the prospects of the restaurant if and when Jiro retires. Because you see, it’s revealed in the documentary that when the Michelin reviewers came to visit, it was Yoshikazu who served them and not Jiro. And it seems that Yoshikazu has just as good a technique as Jiro, just as much knowledge, and just as refined a taste as his father, if not better. But the sad fact is that, as one of the talking head segments goes, Yoshikazu will have to make sushi twice as good as his father in order to be perceived on the same level. I have immense sympathy for Yoshikazu. Especially when he reveals that as a child, his dream was to become a pilot but of course, he had to go into the family business of sushi. The plight of the son in the shadow of his master father is an incredibly compelling narrative, an angle which gets subtly highlighted but not overly pushed, and it’s something which I think makes this documentary so much more than what it first appears.

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The other sub-story is about Yoshikazu’s other son Takashi who left Jiro’s restaurant to start his own. His restaurant is a mirror image of his father’s. Diners there have commented that they like his restaurant for it maintains the quality of Jiro’s but is a much friendlier and lighter atmosphere. I think personally, if I had the chance to go visit either of these restaurants, I’d prefer the atmosphere in Takashi’s restaurant. Jiro’s intense staring, whilst masterful, can be rather intimidating for an eating experience so I completely understand why Takashi’s customers might prefer his style.

Other elements that the documentary touches upon are things like how the changing world has affected the sushi industry. Jiro laments on his diminishing supply of good quality fish. He talks about how a few decades ago, certain fish of certain quality and size were much more plentiful. The overfishing in Japan has forced Jiro to have to adapt his menu and to serve what he knows is fresh and high quality, rather than old favourites.

But at the end of the day, this documentary is about Jiro and what a fascinating person he is. It is an incredibly thoughtful look into the life of a true master: someone who devotes their entire life to perfecting one art. His devotion to his art has even made him a stranger to his own family. When his sons were young, on the rare occasion they saw their father sleep in, they would run and ask their mother “Who is this stranger sleeping in our house?”. He is a man who has sacrificed everything in his endless striving to improve upon his sushi. Jiro is the perfect story of how hard work results in amazing results. He is a self-made man in every sense of the word.

That is why Jiro Dreams of Sushi is so compelling. The man is a perfectionist. He is a master at his art only because he is so dedicated, willing to sacrifice everything in his life to constantly improve. He didn’t have much help, he didn’t get any hand outs, he is simply a man with a dream and a dream that he knew could only be achieved by endless devotion. I cannot even begin to imagine being so passionately devoted to an art form to want to dedicate so much time and effort into it as Jiro has. Luckily for him, it has all paid off. That’s the kind of story I think most people like to hear about: the kind where the good guy is truly good, and he really does win in the end.

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After watching the documentary, visiting Jiro’s restaurant is something that’s definitely on my bucket list. I suspect, given Jiro’s age, that by the time I have the ability to go there, it will have been passed to Yoshikazu and I will never get the chance to experience this master at work. The only downside to watching this documentary is that it will make all your future sushi eating experiences feel like just a prelude to what sushi could be. It hasn’t stopped me enjoying eating my relatively low-quality sushi, but it sure has left me salivating for more.

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