The story of sushi guru Jiro Ono is as simple as the classic hand-pressed nigiri sushi we see him make at his world-renowned Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.
But in both the case of the sushi and the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," simplicity is not only beautiful but deeply satisfying, and the end result is far more than the sum of its parts.
Amazingly, although the world of sushi can seem esoteric and forbidding, this is a welcoming and accessible film. It is in Japanese and subtitled, and takes place almost entirely in the kitchen of Jiro's tiny sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Jiro is almost machinelike in his dedication to honing his craft through endless repetition. His life is his work; his work, as simple as it looks to viewers, is an endless challenge.
Despite a minimum 30,000-yen charge (around $275) and reservations that must be made a month in advance, people flock to Jiro's humble restaurant, downstairs in a subway station. Sukiyabashi Jiro has been given a perfect three-star rating by Michelin, and Jiro himself has been named a national treasure by the government.
Jiro is a serious man who fusses over seating, crafts the all-sushi menu like a concert, hand-forms and gently places each piece of sushi on a flat black stone plate in front of each customer, then watches almost sternly as they eat. It's an interesting and not entirely comfortable dynamic.
Yet Jiro, 85, is an appealing character, in whose personality, emotion and compulsion intertwine. He says, "You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job." Jiro, who has worked in sushi restaurants for 75 years, is still the nit-picking boss of his oldest son, Yoshikazu, 50.
As a young man, Yoshikazu wanted to drive race cars, but no such frivolity was permitted by Jiro, who drafted both Yoshikazu and his younger son, Takashi Ono, into his kitchen as soon as they completed high school. Jiro admits that he was harder on his sons than the other young men in the kitchen, and as the story unfolds, we can see both the scope and the effect of that tutelage.
Jiro himself had almost no childhood. His father lost his job, began drinking and left his family. Little mention is made of Jiro's mother. His first sushi chef bosses brutalized Jiro, and he worked long hours and was paid almost nothing well into his sons' childhood. The sons' mother is not mentioned.
One of Jiro's kitchen assistants tells the harrowing story of learning to make a cooked egg cake that is cubed and served with sushi. He thought it would be easy, he says, as the camera lingers on the fascinating and unexpectedly elaborate process -- the large bowl, the breaking eggs, the mixing, the cooking over coals, and the critical flipping of the square cake with chopsticks. The assistant made the cake several times daily for three or four months, and each one was rejected. When Jiro finally praised a cake, the apprentice wept.
Although he was told as a young man that no sushi dishes could be invented, Jiro did so, dreaming up new combinations and improving traditional ingredients. For example, his apprentices "massage" octopus for up to an hour to tenderize it, and his shrimp is cooked to order, not in advance.
And yet, every day is a challenge because seafood quality varies, and overfishing is reducing the type and quality of the fish available.
The camera work in the kitchen and the restaurant is gorgeous. The jewel-like sushi pieces, the process of toasting sheets of nori over charcoal, the use of a bamboo fan to cool rice to the perfect temperature are all visually fascinating. I could have done without the brief shot of a living fish being cut apart.
Although Jiro remains mentally sharp and fit, everyone realizes that he is mortal and at some point must leave his restaurant. Whether people will still come to be fed by Yoshikazu is questionable. "I must continue my father's tradition," he says solemnly -- but a fickle public may reject the music once the maestro is gone.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto
DIRECTOR: David Gelb
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
RATING: PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking.
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master and his son. In Japanese with English subtitles.