When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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.)

One of Jiro’s sushi pieces.

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.

Jiro (second on left) with his staff, including his oldest son (left), clearly demonstrating the collaborative nature of his work.

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).

Paltry selection of tuna at the fish market in Tokyo

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 Ono

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.

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6 thoughts on “When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

  1. I’ve had JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI on my Netflix queue for a long time, probably years now, but I keep putting off watching it because I hate food. I know that sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, and trust me, it’s an even more ridiculous way to live, but eating feels like some kind of necessary evil, a burdensome chore. I don’t eat red meat, seafood, or vegetables. I have a bowl of cereal for breakfast every morning, a minimalist turkey sandwich for lunch every afternoon, and pasta or pizza for dinner every night. For someone who is proudly hedonistic in all the other areas of my life, I do get a little sad that I’m missing out on this one realm of self-indulgence, but in a strange way I also feel like my restrictive diet is somewhat akin to Jiro’s love of routine. It’s one less choice I have to make in my day when I’d rather expend my thoughts on other, more important topics.

    For Jiro, that other topic is sushi, and I can’t tell you how jealous I am at the amount of distraction he gets to exclude in order to focus on his pursuit of greatness. It speaks to a real problem I have with the way our modern lives are structured. Despite all the great new democratizing tools we have at our disposal (personal computers, etc.) it feels like we’re collectively losing our ability to focus on anything to the point that we can truly excel at it. So, we have a greater amount of people making less original work. It could be a step in the right direction, but only if we figure out a way to give all these makers the opportunity to take their passion to whatever extreme their dreams require.

    I thought your comment about Jiro’s wife was particularly interesting. Yes, Jiro has followed his dream, but I can’t help but wonder . . . what was her dream? Perhaps there are cultural as well as generational differences that make it acceptable in this case for one man’s dream to become more important than his spouse’s, but when I think about the future of the world I want to live in, I hope we move towards something more equal than that. In this way, the documentary is a great example of how the unsaid can often become as provocative as that which is actually spoken. Not only do I want there to be an abundance of large tuna for years to come, a topic addressed in the movie, I’d also like to imagine a future where everyone’s dreams are given equal opportunity and encouragement. Surely, most will fall far flat of Jiro’s brush with perfection, but I can’t help but mourn the seeming inability for most people to even try.

    Since you compared Jiro’s craft with the craft of filmmaking, I have to wonder about the filmmaker or artist these days who has the same inclinations as Jiro, but not the same chance (time) to cultivate his level of obsession. He or she either has to (a) create an inferior quality of art, (b) give up altogether, or (c) find a way to express your own limitations as a quality of your art. For me, my limitation is time. I don’t have any. So, I find myself only working on projects where the pressure of time on the work of art is a quality of the art itself . . . where rough aesthetic edges become reflexive expressions of the content itself. Sure, I wish I had more time to make things, but I try to rationalize it by saying that my busy schedule is something like the structural aspects of a poem: some poets struggle to work in a particular rhyme-scheme whereas I work to fit my art into a restrictive time-scheme. I guess, for Jiro, the equivalent restriction would be the various types of fish that are being harvested to extinction, forcing unwelcome but unavoidable gaps or substitutions in the menu. But these are tastes that our current generation will deprive our descendants of, and that’s just sad.

    Realizing my own inability to put myself in a position of making art my life, I find myself forced to make my life itself a work of art. It was a choice I made out of desperation, but also a choice Jiro has made almost inadvertently. His interviewer touches on this when they discuss the role of the Sushi chef as performer, and we see Jiro’s face light up at the idea that an outsider here has grasped the correlation. The point is further emphasized by the story of how his restaurant did not make the Michelin guide during the first two visits made by the reviewer to the establishment. We are told that it was not Jiro but his son who served the reviewer during those first two visits, and it becomes clear that a large part of the food’s appeal is its autobiographical qualities. Diners don’t come for great sushi, they come for Jiro and his great sushi, and to experience the exchange that happens between the two . . . the man, as well as the expression of the man in food form. Jiro himself is as much the work of art as the food he serves, and diners taste Jiro’s soul in the food as much as they see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. Sure, Jiro’s audience wants to taste a great meal, but more importantly they want to experience their way into a genuine connection with another human being.

    Even though Jiro was in the fortunate position to make his art his life, we also see that it also worked both ways with him. The ways in which he’s made his life a work of art is undeniable. I loved the story about the children having to save up for a can of Coke. Isn’t that the same kind of experience Jiro is trying to recreeate with his food, and more importantly the price of his food? When something is made precious, it is savored. The price becomes justified. I wouldn’t spend several hundred dollars on any meal, but as I stated above, I hate food. I did, however, spend a large chunk of my college student loan money many years ago to purchase one of my ancestor’s paintings. I guess it all comes down to the subjectivity of preciousness.

    Here I am rambling on about myself in a response to an essay in which you talk about the importance of the artist not being to self-centered or self-aggrandizing. I guess I’ve got some work to do on myself! On that tip . . . if anybody is looking for a ten-year apprentice in the arts, I’d be happy to burn my fingertips folding hot towels for the next decade if that meant a shot at the rare gift Jiro was given. And, like Jiro, I hope I’d find a way to pay it forward, and carry others along for the ride.

    • As a student I’m constantly torn between my duty to school and my personal interests–which I hope, but never expect, might one day sustain my livelihood. The danger I think comes from measuring one’s creative output against others. The compulsion to exceed often weighs more than the desire to succeed, but Jiro’s humility in the face of time is a useful response–and suggestive of his success. I thought it was an interesting and not altogether ironic parallel that the length of time it takes a tuna to mature is the same for a sushi apprentice; quality is measured in quantity only as it is the time spent in cultivation.

      I think we may have read the note about the Michelin survey differently. I thought the note was indicating that of the two times that the Michelin reviewers came to evaluate the restaurant (which ultimately led to the three star rating), Jiro’s son had been their chef–and not Jiro himself. I thought it was a note of hope that Jiro’s dreams would survive him.

      I would be fascinated to know more about your ancestor’s paintings, especially the story of their acquisition.

  2. I don’t really have anything to add to your comments about Fukushima, but I found them immensely interesting, and for me, those insights brought this piece to a wonderful and wholly unexpected terrain.

  3. You were totally right about the son and the Michelin survey. I totally misinterpreted it somehow, thinking that the restaurant was only included in the guide once Jiro served them, but that was my mistake. That makes me glad for Yoshi and for Jiro, but I can’t help but wonder about Yoshi’s original dream of becoming a race car driver. I kept wondering if Sushi really was his dream or not, but it seems like it has become his dream if it wasn’t originally. I hope the two sons go on to put their own distinctive mark on the sushi legacy they’ve inherited. Maybe Yoshi will find to pair the unlikely combination of race cars and sushi . . . Formula One Sushi. They could use seafood harvested exclusively from around the BP spill site in the Gulf of Mexico. You could order your entree according to viscosity, like motor oil.

    I’ve also been thinking about my offer to apprentice myself out, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m selling myself short, so conversely I’m also willing to accept applications for potential apprentices if anyone is interested. We could even do some sort of an apprentice time-share exchange, alternating hot towel responsibilities according to whether it’s an odd or even month, or something along those lines.

    Since you asked about the painting . . .

    I wish I could say the painting I mentioned above was the same cave painting from THE LOST YEAR, but that would just be too perfect a story. That painting is by an artist named Arnold Lahee, and I bought that one because it reminded me of my ancestor’s work. The painting I bought with my loan money was done by my g-g-g uncle, Van Dearing Perrine. He isn’t exactly famous, but he was part of the 1913 Armory Show and had a few other interesting high-points during his career. I couldn’t afford one of his important paintings, but I did find an unfinished work of his that I really liked and was more in my price range. When the seller found out I was using my loan money for the painting he was nice enough to give it to me at 2/3 the asking price, but it was still expensive for a poor student like me. I didn’t care that it was unfinished, I just wanted to own something that he’d worked on. I’m a very tactile person, and I just wanted to have something of his in the house so that I could touch the actual brush strokes he’d made. I’m not materialistic either, so I don’t dream of the typical status symbols our culture is conditioned to seek, like fancy cars, a big house, or anything like that. My personal “holy grail” would be to own something that belonged to another ancestor of mine named Michael Geary. He was one of the first professional billiard players in the US, and during the Civil War he owned a billiard hall in Grover’s Theater, the OTHER theater in Washington D.C. that was frequented by both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. Geary lived a pretty amazing life, and he’s going to be the subject of my fourth feature film, once I’m finished with the film I’m just starting now.

    So that kind of speaks to the subjectivity of preciousness, as I mentioned. My thoughts keep going back to the story of the Coke can in JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI. Coke is now the most familiar brand of anything that exists anywhere on the globe, but if you’re a kid who has to save up just to share a small can of it with your sibling, then the object takes on a whole different meaning and importance. I’m sure it even tastes different, and I speak from experience. When my family was going through a particularly rough time growing up, we couldn’t afford to buy Coke anymore, so I skipped school lunch for a few days so that I could use my lunch money to buy myself a bottle. I made the bottle last for like two months. Every day I’d take a tiny sip and then spend fifteen minutes just swishing it through my teeth. So, our appreciation of an object or a food is highly subjective and creates lasting psychological relationship with that particular item or the idea it represents. I’m trying to quit drinking Coke now as an adult and it’s turning out to be harder for me to quit that than it was for me to quit meth. I have to think that it’s because of the childhood association I developed with it when money was so tight in my family. I’m not sure if they addressed it in the film, but I imagine that the scarcity of fish will only drive the prices up at Jiro and his son’s restaurants, and increase the sense of preciousness associated with their cuisine.

    • Your response, in and of itself, would make for the basis of an incredible documentary. There does seem to be this implicit relationship between ourselves and brands that we treat as other selves. It’s no coincidence that businesses prefer to refer to themselves as corporations, an ideological debt to Hobbes I suspect which harkens to a somatic presence. Coca-Cola is, in its emergence as a corporate entity, transmogrified as a corporeal figure.

      I’m also reminded of that scene in The Road, dripping as it with pathos, when father and son share a coke with sanctified awe as if it were blood from the holy grail. Connections indeed!

  4. Considering my last comment there about price . . . I know they mentioned the price of the Sushi is because of the cost of the fish experts, but I was wondering if they might have to pay in the future for fish that are more and more rare, or, if the Fukushima scenario plays out as you described, if maybe they’ll end up having to pay more to ensure that their fish is contaminant free.

    I have to stop writing everything in such a hurry.

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