Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Raw fish! Are you kidding me?” Such was my reaction to the invitation many years ago to try this new food sensation. But after my first bite (I didn’t swallow the sushi whole, like you’re supposed to), I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That glittery red slice of tuna was the tastiest morsel of anything I’d ever eaten.

Hundreds of pieces of sushi later, I’m still enamored. For fish foodies like me, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a fascinating, informative look at the passionate, male-centric world of sushi-making and the relentless perfectionism that drives its masters.

There’s only one sushi restaurant in the world to garner three Michelin stars. It’s a tiny basement eatery, with a mere ten seats, located in the basement of an office building near a Tokyo subway station. There are no appetizers, no sake, and certainly no soy sauce for dipping, just sushi, from the freshest catches of the day, served in meticulous ritual, ten pieces to a meal, laid out in three stages, as if the presentation were a concerto. It costs about $300 per person, reservations required.

Five full-time apprentices have spent the entire day preparing the meal, massaging the octopus for at least 50 minutes to soften it, cooking the special rice until it is absolutely perfect, slicing the fish so precisely that that it takes years to learn how to do it. Reining over this spotlessly clean seafood fiefdom is 85-year-old Jiro Ono. He’s been making sushi for over 75 years, since he ran away from his neglectful parents at age 9. The keys to his international success are simple. “Do the same thing every day” and “Pay attention to every detail.”

New Yorker David Gelb, in his feature film debut, has created a mouth-watering 81-mintue film tribute to one man’s obsession about his work.“I feel ecstatic all day,” Onocrows, beatific. “I love making sushi.” He’s a samurai warrior with a fish knife, a seeker of transcendence in sushi. “I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.”

While Ono’s culinary achievements are legendary, Ono the man has no interests in life other than sushi. No hobbies, no holidays, no curiosity about books or news headlines. We never see his home, or anything but the barest glimpse of his wife, a fact I found disturbing, as if the woman has existed solely to produce sons for Ono and listen to his sushi musings.

Ono thinks about sushi it all the time. “I dream about sushi,” he admits. He is proud of his role as a shunin, an honored master sushi chef, and he treats his apprentices in the same way he bullied himself, with no mercy, little praise, and lots of criticism. His second son has his own sushi restaurant in another part of Tokyo.

The older son, Yoshikazu, almost 50, is officially still an apprentice. In the Japanese tradition of first sons, he has accepted being second-in-command until his father retires. Ono has at least finally passed on to his son the responsibility for the daily shopping at the bustling Tokyo fish market, where he deals with other Japanese career perfectionists, such as the tuna merchant and the octopus vendor. All the men worry that overfishing threatens their livelihood.

As we watch the intense preparation of the evening meal, we can’t help but imagine the utter deliciousness of what Ono has created. And in its subtle omissions, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, albeit respectful and admiring, makes us contemplate the true cost of the search for perfection.

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