Jiro’s sushi restaurant has only 10 seats. There are no restrooms on the premises, and for upward of $300 a meal, the proprietor will gaze impatiently upon you while handing out slices of raw fish for a dining experience that sometimes lasts a mere 15 minutes. And yet, Sukiyabashi Jiro has received three stars from the Michelin guide, and food critics such as Tokyo’s Yamamoto wax rhapsodic about Jiro Ono’s sushi as if it were the second coming. Reservations are generally booked one month in advance.
David Gelb’s strangely engrossing documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is foddie-ism at its most monastic. Profiling prickly 85-year-old master chef Jiro Ono, it’s mainly a film about the pursuit of perfection. The rigid, humorless and astoundingly disciplined Ono keeps a samurai warrior’s code in the kitchen. He generally works seven days a week, only begrudgingly taking time off for national holidays. As such, it doesn’t really matter that his restaurant has no takeaway menus or even any appetizers. Sushi is his life. He even dreams about it, in case the title didn’t tip you off to that already.
I don’t even eat this stuff, and it’s still fascinating to watch the precision of a master at work. My pet theory as to the popularity of The Food Network extends to unrelated shows like American Chopper, or Extreme Couponing. It is just plain enjoyable to watch people do something that they are very good at. Even—or maybe especially if—it’s something you didn’t think you were remotely interested in.
Jiro’s super-heroic dedication to his craft obviously didn’t allow much time for warm and fuzzy parenting. He’s got two sons (their mother is pointedly never mentioned), the eldest of whom has been groomed to eventually take over the restaurant, according to Japanese tradition. The younger was sent to open his own place across town, with a warning that if he failed there “would be no home to which you can return.” Jiro notes that both sons “were allowed to graduate high school” before following in the family business.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi flirts with sadness in the margins. As much as we admire the subject’s skill and commitment to professionalism, is this really all there is to a life? For all the rigor and painstaking presentation, it’s important to remember that these are still just tiny morsels, destined to be shit out.