Work hard. Master your craft. Be passionate about what you do. One could watch David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi and take from it nothing but these generic platitudes, repeated at various intervals throughout the film. There is no mystic philosophy, no esoteric ritual. But the film is the perfect counterpart to the creations of its subject: modest, charming, unpretentious, and an exercise in minimalist splendour that showcases the ornate intricacies of simplicity.
Gelb’s documentary is centered on 85 year-old Jiro Ono and his three-Michelin-starred sushi bar, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Located in the Ginza district f Tokyo, its tiny interior- ten seats and no bathroom- commands a month-long backlog of bookings and a starting price of around £200 for a twenty-piece selection of sushi. We are shown Ono’s meticulous methods of preparation, which include massaging octopi for fifty minutes before cooking them, and guided through the streets to the fish markets of Japan’s capital.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is, it becomes clear, as much about stern, dedication-inspiring sushi shokunin Jiro as it is about his apprentice sons, his former understudies, and the various specialised, ‘anti-establishment’ fish dealers from whom he buys- though not at all about his wife, who is mentioned only once but is, for reasons unknown, absent throughout the film.
Through its austere palette of whites, blacks and wood panels, onto which is overlain Ono’s elegant food, and to a soundtrack of concertos and Philip Glass compositions, Gelb’s film manages to seem fresh while carrying a timeless style and esteem. It is poignant; a visit to Jiro’s school friends and his parents’ grave, at which he remarks on their distance from him and lack of attentiveness in his childhood, is a touching interlude, made all the more so by the way the jocular Ono quips about his misplaced dedication to them. Gelb has created a humble, masterful piece of cinema, and it is a fitting tribute to its humble, masterful star.
words: James Killin
image: Magnolia Pictures