“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011)

by A.J. Hakari

The thing you have to understand about me is that if you put me in front of a documentary, chances are I’ll love it. Among my favorite films of 2011 were true-life glimpses into the advertising biz, the National Film Registry, and nothing more than what people across the globe were doing on a particular day. In the right hands, documentaries can have all the drama and capacity to open one’s eyes to new worlds that fiction does, with the added bonus of knowing that it’s all for real, yo.

Enter Jiro Dreams of Sushi, centered around a form of cuisine I don’t eat, in a country I’ve never visited, and at prices I’m still attempting to fathom. But the film is no instruction manual on how to whip up a bitchin’ tuna roll; it’s about the grace and craft one chef displays in sharing his area of expertise with others. Jiro Ono is the 85-year-old proprietor of an unusual culinary landmark. His sushi restaurant seats a mere ten customers and is located in a nondescript Tokyo subway station, but he goes above and beyond in putting together what goes on the menu. Reservations must be made months in advance, and Jiro seeks out individual dealers to supply quality ingredients for the dishes for which he and his staff continue receiving one well-deserved accolade after another.

And…that’s really about it. Jiro Dreams of Sushi has no ulterior agenda to speak of, save for detailing Jiro’s dedication to his craft. Here is a man who’s spent the last 70 years in his trade, one in which it’s not uncommon to see apprentices quit the same day they start. At times, it seems as if Jiro has put too much of himself towards maintaining his profession’s purity. We see very little of his personal life, he shudders at the thought of taking a day off, and even his grown sons look a little forlorn as they discuss what they planned to do with their lives before their pop coaxed them into the family business.

But despite an intimidating legacy few strive to live up to and the looming threat of quickie sushi joints on the horizon, Jiro remains cheery and unfazed. I wish I could say that the film changed my mind about switching to a more adventurous diet, but the artistry behind every dish is damned impressive. Behind the scenes, Jiro tastes every dish to ensure it’s up to snuff, and so great is his attention to detail, he even takes into consideration what hand a customer favors as he serves them. Even if the food does nothing for your palate, the picture itself has a very calming effect, the result of a mostly classical soundtrack and the warmness Jiro radiates when he talks about a job well done.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an admittedly tough sell, what with it being a Japanese-language documentary about food, which a fair chunk of American viewers would rather eat than watch be assembled. But it’s still a very soothing piece of work about a cool old dude with a work ethic from which picking up tips is well worth it. And for those curious to know, the film ends on a note that reassures us that, should Jiro have to step down for one reason or another, his art will be with us for quite some time.

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