Monday, April 2, 2012

Jiro worship

Sukiyabashi Jiro is a subterranean sushi joint near Tokyo’s Ginza Station. The place serves nothing but sushi, has only ten seats, and the toilet’s down the hall. It’s also the only restaurant of its kind on Earth to have earned Michelin’s full three stars, and a 20-piece meal starts somewhere in the neighbourhood of $300. The proprietor is one Jiro Ono, 85. He’s been making sushi almost daily for 75 years—Jiro hates holidays—and has no retirement plan, despite the fact that his eldest son Yoshikazu has been his apprentice since he was 19 and, though now in his 50s, has yet to take over the family business. Still, even if Sukiyabashi Jiro were to become Sukiyabashi Yoshikazu, would the clientele embrace anything less than sushi shaped by the master’s aged but nimble hands?

David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi is both an alluring high-protein documentary about rarified dining experiences and the cult of personality that can form around chefs and an unobtrusive study of Japanese mores and fraught family dynamics. Jiro’s parents barely raised him; he left home to start what would become his career at the age of nine. Jiro was clearly preternaturally ambitious, a born-workaholic and natural disciplinarian and, given his roots, a kid with nowhere to go but up. Yoshikazu meanwhile grew up under the shadow of his globally revered father and, as the charismatic food critic who provides much of the film’s best commentary puts it, he’d have to make sushi twice as good as his dad in order to convince anyone that he was his equal. Both men retain a stoic, if occasionally dryly humorous, persona, so whatever unspoken tensions linger between them can only be inferred.

There are diverting excursions to Jiro’s childhood home and, most entertainingly, to a fish auction, but much of this documentary stays pretty close to the highly regulated lives of its central characters. Gelb shapes his film with handsomely diffused images of food, faces and urban spaces, impressively fluid travelling shots, lots of slow-motion and the celestial strains of Phillip Glass—for a film about simplicity and austerity Jiro Dreams of Sushi is awfully decorative in its storytelling techniques. Yet mostly it works quite wonderfully. 

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