Movie review: Dream a little sushi

A chef's dedication to his craft is shown in this documentary on Jiro Ono

US President Barack Obama dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro recently on his visit to Japan. We look at the famous sushi bar whose exacting owner has become famous, thanks to a 2012 documentary about his life 

 

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (PG)

 

81 minutes/****

The story: This documentary follows sushi chef Jiro Ono, the 86-year-old owner of a 10-seat eatery in Ginza station, Tokyo. He shot to international fame when the Michelin guide gave his modest sushi bar the highest accolade of three stars.

A word to the wise - eat before you watch this movie.

Otherwise, looking at loving close-ups of glistening pieces of fish, stroked lightly with brushes of soy sauce, atop shiny grains of rice and presented like little edible pieces of art qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

For foodies, and especially sushi devotees, American director David Gelb's debut feature is a paean to the Japanese dish that has gone international in the past couple of decades.

But it is a safe bet that most sushi bars cannot boast of having a chef as meticulous or, to put it bluntly, as obsessive as Jiro Ono. To say he is dedicated to his craft is an understatement of epic proportions.

Apprentices at his sushi bar have to spend months scalding their hands by hand-wringing hot towels for customers before they are even allowed to touch the fish. One apprentice recalls making 200 tamago (egg omelettes) over four months and trashing every batch before he finally made one which Jiro approved of. The apprentice adds: 'I was so happy, I cried.'

If you think sushi is just raw fish and rice, this film will correct the misconception. The ingredients are prepped in an astonishing variety of ways. Octopus, for example, is usually massaged for 30 minutes but Jiro makes his apprentice massage it for 40 minutes.

The sushi master's austere regimen extends to his sons - the older heir apparent Yoshikazu, who at 50 is still working alongside his father, and younger Takashi, who runs his own sushi restaurant at Roppongi Hills. The sons wanted to go to college but Jiro insisted they apprentice at his restaurant instead. Yoshikazu admits frankly that for the first two years, he hated it and wanted to run away.

While Jiro's unyielding ways sound quite despotic, it becomes apparent that they also pay off in concrete terms. Reservations at his restaurant have to be made a year in advance, despite the fact that prices for lunch start from 30,000 yen ($479).

But this is simply material achievement. What the film truly enshrines is the awe-inspiring dedication of a shokunin - a craftsman who repeats the same task every day, and after a lengthy discipleship, produces items of ineffable beauty.

Jiro is not the only shokunin whose passion is celebrated here: there is also Fujita, the self-confessed 'anti-establishment' tuna trader who supplies Jiro, and Hiromichi, Jiro's rice dealer, who refuses to sell his wares to Tokyo's Grand Hyatt because, he says, only Jiro knows how to cook the rice properly.

It is evident that this dedication comes at a price - Jiro admits he was not a good father. He was such an absent parent that, on one rare morning when he slept in at home, his then young son ran to his wife to exclaim: 'There's a stranger sleeping in our house.'

Most people cannot imagine living such an ascetic life, alienating loved ones with single-minded pursuit of perfection but Jiro's passion for his profession is inspirational.

And you will never look at a piece of sushi the same way again.

sorfern@sph.com.sg

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This review was first published on July 26, 2012. The movie is available from amazon.com in DVD ($10.89) and Blu-Ray ($15.35) formats.