Jiro at the age of 85 has spent his entire life perfecting the craft and art of preparing the best sushi in the world. He runs a restaurant in Tokyo with only 8 seats. People make reservations a month or more ahead of time, sometimes only for a fifteen-minute visit. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011; dir. David Gelb) is a portrait of Jiro himself, of his sons, of the art of preparing sushi, but mostly it is a portrait of a way of life devoted to a continuing effort to perfect one’s chosen vocation.
With its title and our typical American sensibilities, we might read humor or irony in the title. But the title means to be taken literally. Jiro does dream of sushi. It is his life’s focus—as an individual, a cook, and a spiritual being. The humor that sometimes arises in the film is not the humor of cultural sarcasm, but the humor that arises from normal human situations. In other words, this film neither condescends to nor smirks at its subject. One such situation is the relationship between Jiro and his two sons, both of whom work with him. The oldest is 50 and is clearly ready to take over when his father steps down. Jiro, aware of his son’s interests, isn’t ready to step aside. He knows his hanging on provokes some impatience, is amused, but feels no real guilt.
I do not know whether calling sushi an art form is appropriate or whether it misses the point. Maybe it overvalues or undervalues the subject. As an art product, sushi certainly ephemeral—it is made and then consumed and then no longer exists. But must art be permanent? (In the long run, no art is). In this film, Jiro and his sons and their staff treat each piece of sushi with a delicate, respectful attitude that suggests reverence, veneration. The experience of consuming sushi may be a religious or artistic experience, judging both by how the sushi chef approaches his craft and by how his patrons talk about it. (Frankly, I’ve often felt the same about fried chicken, but that is another story).
This documentary observes and watches. It watches Jiro in his kitchens, listens to him and his sons and colleagues talk, observes them in their daily lives. We learn something about sushi and much more about life in Japan and about human beings in general.