AFI Fest ’11 Review: The Tantalizing “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

A documentary about the lifelong dedication of a Japanese master chef to his craft is nearly as expert in creating a film celebrating his legacy and asking which of...

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 All our coverage of AFI Fest 2011 can be found here.

A dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro will set you back 30,000 yen (roughly $387 U.S.) and in all likelihood, it could last shorter than the time it takes you to read this review.

“It won’t be a comfortable experience,” says Masuhiro Yamamoto, a food writer who serves as the de facto guide into the master sushi chef Jiro’s world, a small, unassuming nook in the basement of a mall. And yet Yamamoto knows that while nothing’s changed in 40 years other than Jiro’s now-defunct smoking habit, the simple creations of rice and prime cuts of fish haven’t lost their allure, puzzling other master chefs with their depth of flavor and earning the highest rating of three stars from the Michelin Guide.

JiroDreamsofSushiThese things mean something to the 85-year-old chef, but clearly not as much as the act of getting up every morning and going to work. Just as Jiro has created something far bigger than himself through his daily routine, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a new documentary about his life speaks to many larger elements in Japanese culture as a whole. Yamamoto can recall a time when sushi was served as street food until the invention of the California Roll in the ‘80s, raising both the popularity and prestige of the food, a development that no doubt helped put some coin into Jiro’s bank account, which had a mere 10 yen in it when he got married.  

His two sons who once saved money to buy a Coke, only to shake it up under the misguided belief the flavor was at the bottom of the can, are now engaged in an unspoken battle to inherit his restaurant upon his inevitable retirement. Tradition suggests Jiro’s first son and assistant chef Yoshikazu has the right to take it over, while his younger son Takashi has a restaurant of his own, but Jiro has shown no signs of slowing down or giving up, leaving it unsettled. (The fact that Jiro preaches self-sufficiency and yet clearly desires that both of his sons carry on their father’s legacy is one of his few contradictions.)

Beyond the fish-eyed lenses that director David Gelb affixes to his camera to enter the fish market Jiro’s staff frequents, the film often follows the example of its subject. In movements as clean and elegant as the sushi Jiro folds in his hands as if he were solving a Rubik’s cube, Gelb gracefully untangles the family dynamics and the underpinnings of the chef’s unparalleled dedication to his craft. But in structuring the film as if it preparation for a great feast, those story strands only whet the appetite for when Gelb finally gets around to the film’s emotional climax, the experience of being treated to a full meal at his restaurant.

JiroDreamsofSushiTamagoAccompanied by a nimble string score, every piece of fatty tuna and Tamagoyaki (grilled egg) is presented as a bauble, the gleaming result of labor that would seem akin to diamond mining after seeing the parade of apprentices who have spent a decade under Jiro’s tutelage just for the opportunity to fry an egg or to roll the rice properly. (The rice, by the way, being a certain grain that only his disciples can properly pressure cook.) If there’s a fault of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” it’s that this experience overwhelms Jiro’s subsequent visit to his hometown of Hamamatsu to visit friends and the graves of the parents who all but abandoned him, an all-too-brief reminder that he may be human after arguing convincingly that he’s a god. 

Yet “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a film that knows about humans all too well, tantalizing our taste buds and warming our hearts. Although the cost of a visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro would be prohibitively expensive to most, the trip that can be had here for far less is priceless.

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures on March 9th. It plays once more at AFI Fest on November 9th at 7:15 p.m. at the Egyptian-Rigler.

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