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Grade: A-Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Director: David Gelb

Stars: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono

Release Company: Magnolia Pictures

MPAA Rating: PG

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Gelb: Jiro Dreams of Sushi


Traditional Japanese Cuisine of Sushi Rolls on Plate with Chopsticks

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David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi illustrates the best attributes of documentary filmmaking--it paints a vivid portrait of a remarkable character and reveals a world otherwise unavailable to us. The subject is one of Japan's national treasures, considered the world's greatest sushi chef. But the film stretches well past those confines, peeling back the layers of its protagonist to demonstrate his singular passion. If there were a world championship for perfectionism, Jiro Ono would win by acclamation.

For most of us, the idea of doing the same routine every day of our lives for 75 years invokes images of Sisyphus, the king condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. No so for Jiro Ono!

Jiro loves his daily regimine! He runs a 10 seat sushi restaurant located beneath a Tokyo street near a Metro stop. Beginning to learn his craft at the age of nine, Jiro begins before dawn and works late into the night. His two sons never spent time with their father until they followed in his footsteps, as dictated by Japanese tradition. 

National holidays are an anathema to Jiro--these rare days off interfere with his supreme mission in life. His dream: to create THE perfect sushi meal. And he knows that the only path to perfection lies within dedicated repetition and striving for improvement. Now age 85, Jiro still believes that he has not reached perfection yet--though Gelb's gently probing  documentary reveals a slight smile underneath Jiro's sternly serious expression.

The minimum advance time for reservations at his three-star Michelin bar is one month (and this film may make this longer). A meal  of 20 pieces of sushi individually served, lasts 15 minutes and costs $300, thus ranking among the most expensive restaurant experiences in the world. Sushi connoisseurs universally swear that it is well worth the experience--no other sushi restaurant approaches Jiro's high standards.

The camera tracks Jiro's journey through a typical day. And this now includes his oldest son, destined (some may think "condemned") to continue his father's vocation. Great sushi starts with tuna and other sea creatures that meet Jiro's exacting standards. Relationships have been formed with fish merchants who likewise uphold extremely high standards.

The film introduces Jiro's staff and plows into their invaluable service to their mentor. One apprentice chef describes how he had attempted over 300 times to make a sweet egg sushi, only to have Jiro tell him it was no good... before finally making one that received his approval. He relates how the day that Jiro casually referred to him as a "craftsman" made him so happy that he almost shed a tear (of course, hiding it from his revered master).

Many customers feel intimidated by Jiro's penetrating gaze--he closely monitors every subtle body movement to determine how best to serve the needs of each diner. Sushi placement is modified for left-handed diners appropriately while lighter eaters receive slightly smaller portions. No detail is too small for Jiro's attention.

But you need not fear watching this tightly constructed documentary; it captures both Jiro's serious expressions and his dry wit. Note his casual musing at the graves of his parents. Given how important honoring your ancestors ranks in Japanese culture, Jiro's quip is contexturally outrageous.

The film builds to crescendo towards an actual meal service and treats it with as much care as befits the sushi chef. The filmmaker lushly lights and frames each sushi morsel exquisitely while orchestrating the 20 course meal to strains of Mozart and Beethoven--a symphonic finale certain to tempt even the most sqeamish to reserve space at Jiro's restaurant. It's a superb testament to a true artist and unique individual, but even more this film delves deep into the qualities of dedication and perfectionism, and leaves an indelible impression.


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