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At the Movies: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Directed by David Gelb

Back when their economy was booming, and the Japanese were snapping up real estate in Hawaii and golf club memberships in Arizona, there was a joke that suggested that you only needed to be able to say three things in Japanese:

No, it’s not for sale

Can I play through?

Cook the fish!

For the uninitiated, this always seemed like a gag about sushi, but it’s sashimi that’s always raw whereas sushi comes in assorted forms based around the common element of rice that has been cooked and then flavored with vinegar.

The art of sushi preparation has been mastered, and perhaps perfected, in a small restaurant tucked away in the basement of an office building in Tokyo, by owner and chef Jiro Ono.  To put this in perspective, this tiny and unlikely venue seats only 10 people, doesn’t have its own bathroom, and yet has earned an exclusive three star rating from Michelin’s restaurant guides, signifying that it’s worth a trip to the city or country just to experience the cuisine. 

It also costs approximately $360 per person, with reservations needed for both lunch and dinner, assuming of course that you’re booking a month in advance.  And that buys you a 20 piece sushi meal, served sequentially in what is described in the film as the culinary equivalent of a musical performance. 

The film addresses assorted topics, not least of which is parenting with Jiro having learned his style of fatherhood at the age of nine when his own father kicked him out of the house, telling him that he was on his own and that he couldn’t come back (he considers parents who welcome their adult children back into the home to be fostering failure).  Thus, at the age of 85, he says that he has held the same job for 75 years.

And it’s clearly a job that he loves.  The film’s title is a literal interpretation of Jiro’s own recounts of waking up having thought of new recipes and combinations.  We’re also told that he has a habit of lamenting national holidays as days that cause him to stop working.

There’s a single-mindedness and passion here that is fascinating to watch, regardless of one’s taste for or interest in sushi.  I actively avoid seafood of almost all types but was captivated by this film on multiple levels, and it reminded me of last year’s “Buck” about horse trainer Buck Brannaman, a film that was equally interesting regardless of my lack of knowledge of horse training.  There’s simply something special about watching talented people engaged in their life’s passion, almost regardless of what it might be.  At one point we’re told that Jiro was given an award and then promptly went back to work, reminiscent of another recent movie “Bill Cunningham New York” which showed the eponymous and similarly veteran fashion photographer taking photographs at his own investiture ceremony, in France, as an Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

But there are also inconsistencies.  While Jiro is clear regarding his own passion and his belief that you must love and stick to your chosen career, it’s not as clear whether his two sons, both of whom are also sushi chefs, would have chosen the same path if they hadn’t been pushed into it.  The older of the two admits that he hated it for the first two years.

The other part of this is the nature of the training.  And here we see an excellent example of something that has lost favor in our own society – the long format apprenticeship.  Trainee sushi chefs, working under Jiro, take 10 years to advance to the point where they’re considered competent to function on their own and prepare the harder dishes.  In contrast, we’ve become so enamored of classroom educations that we’ve largely turned our backs on the kinds of on the job training programs and apprenticeships that were commonplace in Western Europe, for example, for centuries – and the kinds of working relationships that raised generations of carpenters and stonemasons, and the great houses, palaces, and cathedrals they built.

The film also reminds us of something else that we’re not very good at – but that we’re not alone in.  For all of the transitions in life that we prepare people for, we and others often do a lousy job of preparing people for retirement.  At 85, Jiro’s life is defined by his business and his fixation on further improvement of the art of sushi preparation and delivery, including placing the sushi on a customer’s plate in a manner that reflects whether they are left or right handed.  Meanwhile, his older son is capable of running the original restaurant (the younger son operates his own spinoff) and Jiro could stay home – except that he seems incapable of stopping and apparently lacks anything else to do with his days.

Yet another lesson comes in the form of the nature of excellence and its assorted factors.  One of which is that excellence either begets excellence or is, sometimes, dependent upon or at least associated with other excellence.  Jiro and his team don’t simply take their ingredients and do extraordinary things to them (like hand massaging an octopus for 45-50 minutes to help tenderize it), they seek out excellent ingredients from people who are equally passionate about their own trades – whether it be wholesale tuna purchasing or selling specialty forms of rice.  In one amusing exchange, the rice vendor explains his reluctance to sell the same rice that Jiro buys to the local Hyatt, because he’s sure they won’t take the necessary and painstaking steps to prepare it in the same way, thus rendering it a waste of a special resource.

Respect for resources also comes through in assorted themes of sustainability, whether it be in the context of over-fishing (and the indiscriminate catching of small fish before they have a chance to mature), the sustainability of a long-term career, or in the context of sustaining a business model and continually satisfying one’s customers over time.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a wonderful depiction of a life spent in the passionate pursuit of perfection, complete with its pitfalls.  It would make a neat companion piece to the life lessons from 60 years ago in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” – in which another elderly Japanese man contemplates a life spent doing one thing and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else.  The circumstances and the joy are very different but both are thought-provoking exercises in what it means to accomplish a life well lived.


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