Finding Meaning in Sushi
Published on March 7th, 2012 | by Daniel J. Scott2
Running time: 81 minutes.
Few people are fortunate enough to do what they love for a living. Even fewer can retroactively change the thing they do into the thing they love. But there does exist that minority of people for whom work and play are perfectly aligned. For evidence, look no further than “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a delightful documentary coming to New York and Los Angeles on March 9th.
Directed and shot by first-timer David Gelb, the film centers on Jiro Ono, an eighty-five-year-old sushi chef whose tiny Tokyo restaurant earned him a three Michelin star review―something that gathers meaning once you learn it only accommodates ten people, requires reservations months in advance, and charges $300 a head. Of course, with that price come the merits of seventy-five years of experience. And when I say seventy-five years, I don’t mean with the occasional vacation thrown in or the mid-life change of course. No. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” presents us with a man who has done something amazing to American eyes: he has found extraordinary meaning in routine, in performing the same rituals day in and day out, barring Western concerns of “significance.” New Yorkers will come to this film as members of a society that equates complexity with meaning, changeability with excitement. It’s when your life has become routine that you’ve lost something. Which is why “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is more relevant than the title lets on. Sushi is not the de facto point at all. To the extent that it’s about sushi, the film is about how we define happiness.
To the Japanese shokunin (translated in English as “craftsman” or “artisan”), happiness follows from perfecting your craft. By concentrating all your energies in a single endeavor, be it shoe shining or swordsmanship, you can meet your inner potential and reward society with the results of your work. This isn’t entirely foreign to the founding concepts of the free market. But you’d have to be naive to think that those concepts have any bearing on the consumer society we know day. We are harassed daily by reminders of our inadequacy, and the oh-so-affordable remedies for it. If we didn’t live in a society in which the pursuit of happiness was preached as a God-given right, we’d arguably be happier for it. Such a society is glimpsed through the microcosm of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a cramped, ten-seat restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station.
Jiro Ono, approaching eighty-six years old, presides over a team of young apprentices. His ice-cold stare surveys their every move, at once critical and approving. Though he still comes to work as often as he has over the past seventy-five years, he has recently resigned himself to the role of manager rather than hands-on chef. Make no mistake: he still makes sushi. But the film derives its drama from Jiro’s inevitable decision to bequeath his restaurant to his older son, Yoshikazu. This father-son dynamic is one of the loveliest loveless relationships you’re likely to behold onscreen. “Yoshikazu should just keep on doing the same thing for the rest of life,” Jiro says at one point. The enormousness of that task is elaborated on by a panel of Jiro’s collaborators: longtime fish and rice vendors, renowned sushi chefs, and a celebrated food writer who at times serves as an interviewer. All the while, the question of whether Yoshikazu would prefer to devote himself to other, dare I say more meaningful enterprises is left up for grabs.
The film adopts an elegiac tone, fostered largely by a plaintive score by Philip Glass, Max Richter, and the Kronos Quartet. Lush strings accompany lush montages of the dinner menu’s contents coming to life. Director-cameraman Gelb takes the constraints of Jiro’s restaurant to justify an extreme-close visual style, filming various pieces of sushi landing epically onto their plates, dripping their excesses in slow motion. (I first saw the film at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival hungry. The second time was at a press screening after I had eaten, and I strongly suggest the latter.) The film’s focus on Jiro’s mortality would seem morbid if not for its dignified intentions. Gelb succeeds in crafting a film that shows reverence for its main character without falling into blatant promotion.
That said, the film does suffer from a conspicuous lack of drama, made noticeable by its reliance on music-driven montages. The second time through, I couldn’t help but feel the film could have worked just as well as a series of shorts. As is, it divides its time between Jiro’s evaluation of his life and the broader context of his craft, i.e., how fish come from the sea to their vendors to their buyers to the chefs who prepare them for consumption. The film is capped by a brief caution about the dangers of overfishing, which in fact threatens the very lifestyle the film so lovingly portrays. Unfortunately, this segment comes too late in the film to produce the intended effect, and is too brisk to seem like anything more than a belated stab at drama.
Caveats aside, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is worth seeing. Through its focus on a way of life so dissimilar from the one lived by most Americans, it shows us the endurance of values we claim to be founded upon but have long since forgotten. Tenets like discipline and hard work, having lost their meaning in the rhetoric of modern politicians and business professionals, actually do have a place in reality that can be accessed through a careful managing of expectations.