DVD Drop: Eat something before you read this
The sushi-centric documentary comes to video this week
A scene from Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Rex Features/Everett Collection)
In an unassuming Ginza office building, just off the Tokyo subway line, there is a tiny little sushi bar called Sukiyabashi Jiro. It seats maybe a dozen people, and you have to book your meal a month in advance. And it has three Michelin stars, attracting diners from all over the world to experience chef Jiro Ono's sushi.
Jiro Ono was 85 years old when he was filmed by director David Gelb for Jiro Dreams of Sushi. By all reports, he's still going strong, devoting himself to constructing and serving the Platonic ideal of raw fish and rice at his little stand. And Jiro's absolute conviction that there is one perfect way to do something, and learning that one perfect way is worthy of a lifetime's dedication, is what makes Gelb's documentary so fascinating.
Jiro's sushi preparation isn't complicated. He's not showy or noisy or boastful. His kitchen operates efficiently and quietly, based on getting the best ingredients, combining them simply, and staying out of the way of the food. Gelb treats Jiro's sushi-making almost as a Zen koan: Do one thing, and do it well. And by making the documentary as respectful and as focused as Jiro is about his sushi, Gelb has found a fascinating cinematic analogue to his subject.
There's more to Jiro's life than sushi, but not much more. He works every day, and even his home life is folded into his business; his oldest son, Yoshikazu, apprenticed under him for decades, and has recently opened a second location of Sukiyabashi Jiro in a Tokyo mega-mall, Roppongi Hills. That one has received two Michelin stars. Jiro is not impressed.
In a weird way, Jiro Dreams of Sushi feels like the smartest TV series the Food Network never produced. It doesn't take any stylistic risks, presenting its story simply and without any distracting flourishes; Gelb introduces us to Jiro and his restaurant, dropping in commentary from Japanese food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto to explain the greater relevance of Jiro's work and expand on some of the things that Jiro is reluctant to discuss in depth, like Yoshikazu's attempts to expand upon Jiro's menu at the Roppongi Hills location.
As the doc rolls on, we glimpse Jiro's process - again, it's nothing secret or crafty, just a sharp eye for ingredients and a lifetime spent cultivating relationships with his suppliers. Vendors at the Tsukiji fish market make sure he gets the freshest catches; he has a rice guy, a seafood guy, an egg guy and so on.
And sure, Jiro's attention to detail would seem absurd if we didn't then see those ingredients being made into the most exquisite meals, presented simply and elegantly. The food photography here is almost preposterously great, each piece of sushi shown in loving macro close-up, glistening with moisture - and Jiro's soy sauce, which comes with its own exacting rules. I made the mistake of seeing a press screening on an empty stomach, and I'm positive my torment was audible for several rows in every direction.
I will probably never get the chance to go to Tokyo, and I will almost certainly never get the chance to eat Jiro Ono's sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is as close as I'll ever come, and amazingly, it's almost enough. It immerses us in the world of Sukiyabashi Jiro for an hour and a half; the only difference is that we're so very hungry when we leave.
E-mail Norman Wilner at firstname.lastname@example.org