Movie Review: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Directed by David Gelb

For those moviegoers who are hopelessly food-obsessed, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” will no doubt leave some viewers yearning for a bit more, but maybe that’s to be expected. After all, with more than 75 years of experience in the kitchen, 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono has developed a wealth of culinary knowledge that probably exceeds that of anyone before him, and arguably exceeds that of anyone in the present day. With so much culinary expertise at the core of the film, those who cook for a living, or even those who qualify as serious home gourmets, will certainly become fixated by the ingredients and techniques in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (these are the same viewers, no doubt, who will instantly recognize Joël Robuchon during the film’s opening sequence).

If you’re at all like me, you’ll spend much of the movie wishing that there was more explanation from the kitchen at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Ono’s famed 10-seat Tokyo sushi bar. There were many moments when I craved more theory and more culinary insight. At other times during the film, you might even daydream about a quick trip to Japan for the 20-minute, 30,000-yen lunch, as I did. And during the more inspiring segments, you may even briefly consider the cost-benefit ratio of a 10-year apprenticeship under a sushi master, the ultimate plunge. However, for most normal people, for those with just a casual interest in cooking or eating, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” will simply offer its viewers a sufficient and engaging glimpse into the mysterious subculture of the shokunin.

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For better or worse, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” portrays its subject in rather broad strokes, focusing exclusively on the relationship between fathers and sons, chefs and vendors. Granted, these relationships are the heart and soul of the movie, but with barely even a nod to the role of the women in Ono’s life, the “human” aspect of the documentary does feel slightly incomplete and under-researched at certain times. As the film addresses Ono’s childhood, for instance, the great shokunin implies that his father had succumbed to alcoholism early on, but Ono never offers any information about his mother, or her role in his upbringing (or lack thereof). Instead, the audience is left to wonder.

We can probably assume that, living in Japan more than 80 years ago, Ono’s mother was powerless to do much about her own situation, but if Ono was essentially orphaned at age nine, where was she? And where did he go? How does a nine-year-old forge his way in the world? These types of questions can become somewhat distracting when left unanswered (or worse, unasked). Ono’s story is reminiscent of Antione Carême, and Dickensian in nature, yet this kernel of drama is somehow left on the table. Perhaps Ono simply didn’t care to address his mother. If so, the filmmaker needs to convey that to the audience, because that would at least tell us something.

Another glaring omission is the fact that “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” mentions almost nothing about Ono’s wife, except that she seems to have raised his two sons — and stretched a meager income — while Ono spent countless hours perfecting his craft. Of course, I’m not claiming that Ono’s wife should be the hero of the story, but the documentary fails to even mention if she’s still alive or not, and she could’ve certainly added a unique perspective to the film, even if their marriage was indifferent (again, I’m merely assuming).

On course, one might ultimately argue that the film’s limited perspective is the simple reflection of Ono’s male-dominated universe: Not only does traditional Japanese culture skew towards the chauvinistic, but the culinary world does as well. One might also argue that Ono was “married” to his profession. Although these ideas may ring true, I still say that “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” needed a bit more backstory to be complete.

Despite these general criticisms, however, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” does succeed in several other areas, and it features several transcendent moments of culinary bliss. In terms of its general cinematography, the film’s heavy color saturation can be borderline pornographic at times, especially during the akami (lean tuna) close-ups. I’m all for it, however. Without the benefit of smell and taste, the sushi has to appear extra-appetizing in order to convey its real-life deliciousness.

Aside from the film’s amazing culinary footage, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” also provides the audience with far more laughs than one might expect from this type of documentary. As a devout perfectionist, Ono remains steadfastly serious and passionate about his profession, yet he often reveals an impish charm that compliments his sage wisdom. Many people, even Japan’s top food critics, seem intimidated to dine at his restaurant, yet on camera and behind the scenes, Ono seems engaging, approachable, and eminently hospitable.

On a more serious note, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” also scores points for addressing the issue of over-fishing, a subject which is actually becoming tantamount to Ono himself. As the quality of fish declines, the quality of sushi will continue to suffer. Indeed, the startling black-and-white footage of yesteryear’s massively-sized bluefin tuna should be equally as alarming as the enormous mountain of styrofoam outside of today’s Tsukiji fish market.

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