Shokunin translates from Japanese into English as “artisan.” According to the experts, there is no finer artisan of the craft of making Sushi than Jiro Ono, whose life is explored in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about this amazing 85 year old man.
His restaurant is in the basement of a tall building in Tokyo, with no restroom and seating for only ten patrons at a time. Serving only sushi, patrons may wait up to a year to snag a reservation. No menus, no choices. Diners pay nearly $400 per person for the feast of magical sushi that Jiro conjures for them, every possible detail thought of, considered and the only possible way to explain what finally appears and is eaten.
Jiro’s life of immersion in the art of making sushi began when he left home before his tenth birthday. His father failed at business and took to drink after having to take a job, and we know precious little else about Jiro’s childhood. We learn that he has two adult sons, one of whom, Yoshikazu, will succeed him in the role as head sushi chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the name of the tiny restaurant in a basement. His other son runs his own sushi restaurant in Roppongi. His apprentices willingly spend ten years or more learning the craft of sushi from the master, and learn they do under Jiro’s watchful eye.
Eighty-five when the film was made, he’s been forced to cut back a little on his workload since having suffered a heart attack 15 years ago. Now it is Yoshikazu who performs the first step in the preparation of those oh so delicious and beautiful morsels. Going out to the fish market each morning and choosing from only the finest quality of fish.
Given the explosion in popularity of sushi, particularly in the U.S., after the late 1970s invention of the California roll has made the finding of only the best fish much more problematic. Still, Yoshikazu perserveres and returns each and every day with enough fish for that day’s patrons. He purchases only the finest rice from the best vendor of rice in Tokyo. A vendor who turned down a request from the Grand Hyatt hotel to provide rice for them, as he considered them unworth and unable of cooking such marvelous rice.
Yes, Jiro Ono, a man in his mid 80s, works every day. Seven days a week. He stops only for national holidays and appears to consider such days a waste of time. Atop his chosen profession, he strives to improve the sushi he creates, seeking to make each day’s production better than that of the prior day. His work ethic makes most young adults look like slackers. Experienced foodies profess nervousness at the thought of dining at the counter of the man, but he can be seen taking delight in their enjoyment of the meal he prepares.
Meticulous planning goes into the preparation of each and every piece of sushi. Jiro and staff memorize the seating arrangement, so that he can actually size the pieces to the person, so all will finish eating each course at the same time. It is in showcasing these pieces of sushi that director Gelb does his best work.
If you can sit through even part of those images without begining to salivate for a bite of what you see, you possess incredible willpower. I wanted a bite after seeing just one piece and the desire to taste Jiro’s work grows throughout the film. Better yet, these visions of deliciousness are perfectly set to wonderful performances of classical music (lots of Phillip Glass) that just serve to make them seem even more beautiful.
When Jiro finally decides to retire, which may never come to pass, or when the inevitable were to occur, for even sushi masters are mortal, the big question is will Yoshikazu be able to live up to his father’s lasting legacy. He may well have to be twice as good just to be considered on a part with Jiro, and while unfair, that’s just part and parcel of being the son of a legend.