Documentary Film Critique - Jiro Dreams of Sushi
I can't remember the last time I saw a documentary film. It's not that I don't enjoy documentaries; I love the informational content, but often, the information alone is not enough to hold my interest. Jiro was different. The compelling story presented in Jiro Dreams of Sushi made me forget that I was watching a documentary altogether.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary film about an 85-year-old sushi master in Tokyo that has been making sushi all his life and desires to do nothing else. His is a success story built on hard work and perserverence; Jiro Ono has been making sushi for 75 years, dedicating his entire life to his work. So much so, that Jiro quite literally "dreams of sushi".
The documentary contains facets of the story told by Jiro, but also by his co-workers and customers alike. A food writer considered to be the most knowledgeable of sushi has nothing but praise for Jiro and his work. Jiro's sons talk about the amount of love their father puts into his work, and their relationship with each other, considering that the youngest son has opened his own shop under Jiro's name while the eldest still works under Jiro. A lot of what the documentary has to offer is not on the subject of sushi, but the culture that goes into the entire process and culture that surrounds Jiro and his work.
The scope of what this documentary is able to cover in 90 minutes is probably the most surprising thing of all. In examining Jiro's simplistic sushi, the director has found a way to capture the essential simplicity that is traditional Japanese culture, from the hard-working apprenticeship to familial succession. He even found a way to slip in a plea from the eldest son about the dangers of over-fishing and the commercialization of his craft.
It's impressive to me that most of the documentary was shot on a single camera. In an interview across a table, the camera pans back and forth between two parties. Often, the interviewer's questions are overheard out of the frame, and the interviewee is shot looking away from the camera. There doesn't appear to be much use of external lighting, which is impressive considering what must have been a darker atmosphere indoors at a sushi restaurant.
Perhaps what is most compelling about this story is its exposition of the finer side of sushi. At Jiro's restaurant, reservations are mandatory, and must be made at least a month in advance. Plates start at 30,000 Yen (about 300 U.S. Dollars). Still, the restaurant is full every day. Such a small topic should yield little information, but in delving deep into the craft, the director reveals all of the finer points of Jiro's prize-winning sushi. Only the best goes into Jiro's sushi, and it shows. It's always exciting to find someone who is dedicated to their work, and Jiro is the perfect specimen. For 75 out of his 85 years of life, he has been making sushi. Jiro himself has said that he doesn't care about the money, only about the sushi. In his own words:
I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but know one knows where the top is! Even at my age, after decades of work, I don't think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi. That's the spirit of the shokunin.
The director's extraction of the underlying Japanese culture in Jiro is what takes the documentary to the next level. Jiro was set off on his own at the age of 9, and had to make his own way from there. That is where he gets his instilled regimen of hard work. Aspiring sushi chefs must endure a 10-year apprenticeship, where they first must learn how to properly squeeze scalding hot towels before ever touching food. This grueling training is indicative of the traditional culture in Jiro's craft.
What sets Jiro most apart is his drive to do better. His eldest son said that the most important thing his father taught him was "Always strive to elevate your craft." When Jiro first started, the masters said that all that one could ever do with sushi had been done. Jiro set out to prove them wrong. In an age where sushi can be found on almost every corner in Japan, Jiro's stands apart with its attention to detail in every piece. The director of this documentary stood by the same rules. Where Jiro's sushi could have been a simple story about food, the director chose to delve as deep as he possibly could into what makes it special. That's what elevates Jiro Dreams of Sushi above the masses.