Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix.)
When one first learns that the price for a plate at Jiro’s world-renowned sushi restaurant begins at 30,000 yen, or $300, the mind reacts in two ways. Either it balks or it bargains. If it balks, then perhaps it is reminded of similar outrageously expensive food, like that $1,000 pizza in New York. In that case, the rebarbative concoction, loaded as it is with caviar and lobster, wastes its ingredients while it overcharges for them. Nevermind the idiocy of baking truffles in creme fraiche (where the fat from the latter and the heat from the oven overpowers any nuance in the flavour of the former) and serving it on a pan of bread, the whole thing arrives to the customer a greasy, congealed mess fit only for the blind and nouveau riche. Don’t even get me started on the $25,000 sundae. If I wanted to ingest five grams of gold I would just drink a few bottles of Goldschläger in a single sitting (at least that way the alcohol would stand a good chance of blocking out the thought of wasting so much money). Compared to this then, $300 for an actual meal seems like a steal.
And that’s where the second reaction, the bargaining, becomes the most appropriate response to the figure, especially when applied to the actual components of the meal itself. The critical appraisal would allow one to see that Jiro’s sushi arrives to its patrons as individual works of art, where the texture and colour of each cut serves as a distinct note in a culinary symphony crafted over more than half a century of effort and experimentation. More than charging for edible art, however, he’s charging for admission to the pursuit of perfection, which Jiro graciously allows the patron to join him.
I’m reminded of Michelangelo. It didn’t really matter so much to him where the money was coming from, had his patrons been secular humanists history would’ve preserved perhaps a Michelangelo’s Hercules rather than his David. The Sistine Chapel might have been a testament to intellect and reason rather than the glory of a Christian God (though one can’t help but notice God sitting on what appears to be cloth outlining the human brain, with the folds to match–a heretical wink to Michelangelo’s resurrectionist past-times and his wicked sense of profrane humour). No matter, the work would have remained ostensibly the same. The money was only a means to realizing a vision, and never the vision in itself. It’s a lesson that many celebrities could do to learn, though I don’t mean to imply the practice is wholly new to this epoch, we’ve had hacks since the invention of the printing press. However, it really only seems to be since the late 20th century on that people have come to expect so much for doing so little. (I’m reminded of that brilliant, ironical turn of Banksy’s protege–or fabrication–from budding artist to crass commercialist in Exit Through the Gift Shop.)
Released in 2011, David Gelb’s documentary captures with precise cinematography every luscious piece of sushi set down on Jiro’s black marble plates, and records with antiseptic purity the refined craft of a lifetime spent mastering the art of sushi. The pursuit may be as seemingly irrelevant as the perfect sushi meal, but the intent is admirable nonetheless. That may be what I appreciate most about this documentary: its success in not only glamorizing creativity, but diligence as well. Jiro bears studying for his unparalleled work ethic, and that he achieved recognition simply by perseverance of skill, not the manipulation of opinion. In this documentary you will not find any self-aggrandizement. Jiro maintains no fan page or publicist. Even the media page of the restaurant’s website is brief, thoroughly incomplete, and makes no mention of this documentary. The point is that Jiro did not seek the distinction of being the greatest, he sought to actually become the greatest–a quest which he admits he’s still undertaking to this day. So much of human artistry is wasted in self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, self-adoration. It distracts from the real work of the art. The Michelin judges confirmed his greatness in 2008, but they did not bestow it. (I see a profound correlation between this fact and the post-facto success of films, which are only deemed “good”, whatever that means”, after the ratifying A-Ok from the academy.) Jiro’s prices weren’t artificially inflated after the accolades and success, but came as a natural correspondent to the quality of his work. Quite simply, it costs a lot to make sushi this good.
Quixotic, perhaps, that the art is sushi, but it is nevertheless worthy of that distinction. Early in the film one of the sushi historians (there are such things, it seems) describes the humble origins of the meal as a street dish, and likens it to the various food stalls in New York. But a hotdog, this ain’t. So I admire Jiro in seeking to improve something that many considered either damned by the lowly stamp of its origin, or as good as can be. But Jiro had a vision of the potential for sushi–dead fish on rice!–and turned that dream into edible symphonies.
The other quality which makes Jiro admirable, and which the film should be applauded for including, is the great collaboration required between Jiro and his staff (which includes both his sons). It is this resistance to hyperbolize an artist who would be easy to aggrandize (and who would have been in a documentary of lesser skill) which forms perhaps the most interesting section of the film, as the magician pulls back the curtain and shows the audience how he achieves this magic. More amazing still, the explanation bears out that the quality and recognition is not an illusion, but attained through the excellence in the craft. Unlike trade magic, the explanation doesn’t dull the experience here, only improves it. Throughout you see that Jiro is not alone in his work, and that perhaps his greatest skill lies in the ability to surround himself with the most astute and astounding experts. Few artists truly excel as one man armies, and those who do succeed often see their output dwindle spectacularly as senescence overtakes them (see Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa). The real strength of an artist is in being able to bend others to his or her will. Strung together, those assembled read off more as the participants for a silly French caper flick, from the dedicated kitchen staff and their grueling training practices, to the fish market dealer and his philosophy of only bidding for and buying the best catch (or else no catch), and finally the fiercely loyal rice expert (there is such a thing), who refused the Hyatt the right to buy his rice unless Jiro gave the ok. Jiro’s response, “they wouldn’t know how to cook it anyway,” seems solid evidence that he did not give permission.
Perhaps what I admire most about Jiro is that he isn’t interested in quantity, only in quality. There is no Jiro sushi franchise, no Jiro frozen sushi dinner plate, no Jiro cooking show, and thankfully so. It would distract from the work. After he won the highest Michelin honour, Jiro was back in the restaurant later that day preparing the dinner for his customers. That is his dedication, borne out of love for his work. It is a lesson in humility and self-restraint that I wish many would take the time to consider, especially given the deluge of mediocre and mind-numbing cinematic confections. If only all filmmakers should have such commitment to their work.
Jiro carries this ethic into his restaurant. To say it is spartan would be an understatement. At Sukiyabashi Jiro there are only ten seats, the desire for which is so great that customers must book at least one month in advance (a number which I suspect grew after this film premiered). The intent is not arbitrary exclusivity, but rather to allow Jiro to ensure the highest quality for each patron. It is for this reason that Jiro has done away with appetizers, they distract from the real work of sushi (not to mention his annoyance when customers would fill up on other dishes beforehand and only eat a few pieces of sushi). By focusing exclusively on the sushi, Jiro placed himself in the rare and enviable position where he was able to focus on completing one objective and doing so with distinction: creating the perfect sushi meal. (To flog again that dead horse: If only filmmakers could be so restrained and clear-sighted, and to know precisely what they want out of their art.)
Jiro cares passionately about his audience, and he makes sure he knows them well. He caters each meal, and, more astoundingly, each piece of sushi to his customers. He is dedicated to perfecting his art and knows intimately how that perfection is concomitant with the perception of his work. More specifically, the art succeeds only because it is consumed, and digested by the audience. In this lability of terms we see the strong influence this ideology can have on any medium, be it the craft of sushi or the craft of film. Jiro can only do so much before the subjectivity of the audience must come to bear on the success of his work. His art cannot exist in a vacuum, in the same way then that we can see how films (despite all assurances by some to the contrary) cannot exist without critical reflection.
My only question remains “where’s the wife in all this?” We know she’s around, and the absence almost tumbles into a Jane Eyre pastiche as we learn how dogged Jiro was in his obsession with perfecting his sushi. I suspect she didn’t wish to appear, but it would’ve been fascinating to hear her feelings towards a man who quite clearly, and perhaps unfortunately, put his work before his family and even himself. Jiro admits he wasn’t a good father, absent for most of his sons’ adolescence as he worked tirelessly to secure a reputation for himself and money for his family. Though the work benefited his family, one gets the sense that it moved far beyond mere provision. Put more simply, Jiro seemed to have enjoyed waking up at 5 am and making sushi till 10 pm, and repeating this process 6 days a week for countless years. Jiro claims to have no regrets, in fact he recalls the work ethic fondly, and there doesn’t seem to be much doubt, but does she feel the same? How would it feel for a woman to know that she wasn’t the real love of her husband’s life? Perhaps it’s too personal then, but the film does give a short detour to allow Jiro to visit the graves of his ancestors, where he remarks with a laugh that they never took care of him. A clue perhaps for understanding the domestic situation–that is, if we want to play junior detective psychologists.
The film even allows a brief moment for Jiro to reflect on the state of the Japanese fishing industry. Here the film wisely accentuates the problem with an evocative juxtaposition between old documentary footage of the Japanese fishing industry after World War 2, with tuna so large and mature they make the scrawny welps laid out on the slabs in front of Jiro’s selective fish buyer in the next shot all the more jarring. “It takes ten years for a tuna to reach full maturity,” Jiro cautions, before emphasising the need for a serious and renewed ecological discussion (and not a debate, mind you, since the near extinction of fish species in Japan is undisputed, all that remains to discuss is the logistics of survival).
In the wake of Fukushima, which occurred after the film was completed but several months before it was released, it may well be Jiro’s dreams of sushi will soon be no more than that. While the documentary remains for most Western audiences a glimpse of a foreign land, quite soon it will become for all a record of a foreign era. The environmental aftermath of the destroyed reactor, perched as it was so precariously on the coast line, has left the Pacific Ocean now an irradiated wasteland, with starfish literally liquefying on the ocean floor half the world over. A mighty plume of radioactive material (the insidious cesium-137) remains to this day snaking its way to the western coast of North America, and isn’t expected to dissipate for the next thirty years. Because of this and the effects of ocean circulation, we’ll be getting our daily doses of Cesium-137, Fukushima style, from every ocean on the planet before the end of this decade. In case you’re wondering, this malevolent little radioactive isotope kills you in large enough doses, but if it fails to get your whole body, it makes sure to at least kill your cells and increase the risk of cancer. Though some might argue that though the fish may be irradiated, they’re not dangerous (see here), the whole question is moot if they go extinct. Perhaps ironically, the man-made ecological disaster provided by Fukushima might actually benefit fish species, since less people will be eating them and their demand will fall.
Given that the exponential decrease of tuna means that sushi’s mainstay fish may be gone within the next five years, it may very well be that sushi will be gone before Jiro, who was 85 when the documentary was made and happily conscious that he’s well into the final part of his life. A shame, for this is one of the few films where I actually hope one day there might be a sequel, this time focusing on Jiro’s sons as they strive to overcome the enormous shadow cast by their father. Faced with an ecological disaster beyond any the world has ever encountered (and no, that’s not the tag line for an end of the world movie, though the obvious fact that it reads as one should give world leaders pause to collectively figure out a solution–you know, just like they do in those movies), Jiro’s quest of crafting the perfect sushi may remain unfulfilled. Don Quixote indeed. One can only imagine what Jiro’s windmills might be.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a gripping, honest and, as much as I hate to employ the cliche I can’t resist, raw testament to art, genius and the lengths to which the two drive us humble vessels to their ends.