The Master of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Egyptian-Rigler, 11/8/2011,  4:30 PM
Egyptian-Rigler, 11/9/2011, 7:15 PM 

By Katie Datko

The simplicity of sushi belies its artistry. What appears to be mere raw fish over a ball of rice is actually an opus—each grain of rice and cut of fish a meticulously choreographed work of art, modestly unassuming in its complexity. This seeming effortlessness is only achieved through daily practice and austerity. A true master of the sushi knife is one who wields it with awareness, who recognizes that praise is fleeting, perfection impossible.

Jiro Ono, the 85 year-old subject of David Gelb’s documentary JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, is the epitome of the sushi master. Probably the most famous sushi chef in the world, substitute Jiro’s knife for a keisaku (stick used to beat apprentices in Zen meditation) or a calligraphy brush and it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to picture him as the archetypical Japanese Zen Master—a plain bald man, simply clad, disciplined and unyielding.

For even the most fervent foodie, 90 minutes spent watching an old guy making sushi might seem a bit much. Yet Gelb, shooting with just a two-person crew, renders a humanistic and intimate portrait of Jiro and manages to keep the story fresh. Through the clever use of a fisheye lens—while prepping in the kitchen or shopping in the Tsukiji Fish Market—Gelb manages to keep close to his subject without making us feel confined. This fishbowl-like effect creates a mise-en-scène that, while distorted, draws us smoothly into the sparse world revolving around a tiny 10-seat restaurant housed in the basement of a Tokyo office building. Smaller spaces seem open, larger spaces accessible. The curve of the lens almost seems to be toying with the idea that there is in fact a humbler, more approachable side to Jiro’s character; something beneath the surface that subtly calls into question the outsider’s view of Jiro’s infamous persona as the stern taskmaster.

This is not a film centered around a strong narrative arc or a compelling social issue. Rather the heart of the story lies in the beauty of the sushi and the talent of the man who creates it. Informants, like the well-known Japanese food critic Yamamoto, Jiro’s sons Yoshikazu and Takashi, current and former apprentices and suppliers, are all people who know Jiro well. Instead of interviews laden with psychological deconstruction of Jiro’s personality, these are sketches of a man who has achieved so much from so little. Rough drafts that, when combined, create a more complete picture of  Jiro. From a boy who was abandoned by his father and started working at an early age to a top sushi master, we learn that Jiro is not one to dwell on his past—his past seems to inspire his dreams, and the hard work of combining fish and rice is what fuels them.

Despite an exaggerated classical music score replete with aptly timed crescendos that match the slice of a knife or the placement of fatty tuna on a plain back plate, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is subdued and unpretentious; Gelb’s camerawork and editing keep to a clean Japanese minimalism. The quotidian cycle of buying, preparing and serving sushi becomes more than just mouth-watering eye candy. It is an opportunity to savor, as Jiro puts it, “an ideal moment of deliciousness,” where even tuna carcasses at the fish market attain an ethereal quality and become objects of contemplation.

Katie Datko is an LA-based writer who has written for the L.A. Weekly, and the LohDown on Science.

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