Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I'm not sure I can eat sushi again. Or at least not for a week, until the afterglow from Jiro Dreams of Sushi wears off. And certainly not any of the upscale-grocery-store sushi I sometimes rely upon for a quick lunch. I have seen some of the most gorgeous sushi in the world, and it makes the stuff in a refrigerated display case look like cat food.

But Jiro Dreams of Sushi's appeal shouldn't be limited to foodies or sushi fans. This documentary from David Gelb is about a master of his craft, pushing himself and his apprentices to greater heights, achieving creations that look deceptively simple but have hidden depths of complexity. Someone could make the same movie with the same structure about a painter, scupltor or architect.

The first half-hour of Jiro Dreams of Sushi is so complete and well contained that I thought it could have been a documentary on its own, and wondered what was left for the movie to show. Jiro Ono is 85 years old but still follows his daily routine as the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station that has earned three Michelin stars despite its size and the fact that it only serves sushi. His oldest son Yashikazu (age 50) works at his side and is in charge of buying the seafood. His younger son Takashi owns another sushi restaurant that is the mirrored twin of his father's.

But the documentary isn't done there -- we get a glimpse into many details of Jiro's craft. Jiro's sushi looks so simple that at first, I wondered what the fuss was about. How difficult can it be to slice of a hunk of raw fish and stick it on a ball of rice with a bit of wasabi in between? By the end of the film, I realized how terribly naive I was. Jiro and his sons deal with "tuna experts" and "octopus experts" at the fish market; they use a particular type of rice that is challenging to cook correctly; the fish is marinated and the octopus is massaged into tenderness ... it takes apprentices years and years to learn how to make the egg-based sushi to Jiro's satisfaction.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi has no formal narration, but cleverly provides background information through interviews with a food critic who frequents Jiro's restaurant. The film focuses on Jiro and his sons, but also includes interviews with the experts at the fish market, Jiro's staff, and a few patrons. The movie is 82 minutes long and maintains a deliberately paced rhythm that never drags. At one point, the documentary does mention the problems sushi's popularity has caused with overfishing, but barely skates the surface. It didn't quite fit the rest of the film.

One other thing I learned about sushi from Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Apparently it's a man's world, still, at least in Tokyo. I have no idea how accurately the movie portrays this aspect of the business, but I saw no women in the kitchens, no women providing expert advice in the fish market ... the only females in the film are restaurant patrons and a few childhood friends of Jiro. Jiro even admits to his customers in one scene that he gives the women smaller portions so everyone can finish at the same time and faciliate the next course in the tasting menu.

The sushi is beautifully photographed, also by filmmaker Gelb -- tuna never looked so lovely and tempting onscreen. And the soundtrack of classical music is fitting and unobtrusive. Jiro Dreams of Sushi takes what seems like a one-note idea and expands it into something complex and fascinating ... much like Jiro and his sushi creations.

Note: If you see the movie at Violet Crown and bring your ticket stub to Uchi or Uchiko, today (March 25) through Tuesday, March 27, you can get 25 percent off your bill. (Thanks to Austinist for the heads up.)