Restaurants

Jiro Ono at his Tokyo sushi bar with son, Yoshikazu.
Image: Courtesy of Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Dreaming of Jiro dreaming of sushi

Docu-bio reveals a world in which raw fish and rice is all

If you don’t care about food, you’ll be mouth-open asleep within the first 10 minutes of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

If food is your thing, you’ll be open-mouthed, too. With delight.

Assigned, as resident food-maven, to see the 2012 study of Tokyo sushi master Jiro Ono, I arrived at the Consolidated Theaters Kahala 8, early and hungry. There is one of those conveyor-belt sushi restaurants right next to the theaters but there was a line, so I bought a hot dog and some coffee and took my seat.

Within minutes, the coffee was cold, the hot dog was forgotten and I was thanking all that is holy that I had not sullied my lips with . . . shudder . . . conveyor-belt “jankufuudo.”

Because, watching this film, I felt I was experiencing sushi for the first time, in every sense, without actually eating it.

I’m not a sushi bar habitué, but I know enough to say “Omakase, kudasai,” to take it all in one bite and not to ask for shoyu.

But, after witnessing the sensitive and crystalline camera work of producer/director/cinematographer David Gelb, I didn’t want sushi. I wanted a Japanese speaker to make my dining reservations and the cash to hop a flight to Norita to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro, this 10-seat Michelin 3-star restaurant in Ginza Chuo-ku Tokyo. I finally understood why a friend of mine, a working stiff like myself, once went to Spain solely to eat at elBulli.

The genius of the film is that, with only superb camerawork, soft-toned interviews and fleeting subtitles, you are drawn so irresistably into the 85-year-old Jiro-sama’s world view that you begin to see sushi as he does.

As a god, a master.

You understand how it might be that, oftimes, he leaps out of bed to record a dream of a new type of sushi or a new technique, thus the title.

His is a world in which the stringiness of the day’s akami (lean tuna), the precise dimensions of the sliced tamago (baked egg omelet), the dirth of shrimp at the fish auction are all that matter.

Every employee anxiously stares at Jiro’s granite-carved face as he dips a chopstick into a marinade, rubs his fingers around a morsel of fish, takes a bite of a new creation by his heir apparent and elder son, Yoshikazu.

Apprentices shout “Hai!” at his every suggestion and perform backbreaking labor for the privilege, perhaps 10 years down the road, of being allowed to make an egg, says food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto.

And then there are the customers, who may have waited one year for their reservations. As they savor their first morsel, they get this look. They exhale but say nothing, as though the experience is too sacred to be worthy of words.

Gelb reveals, close up and without artifice, the selection of the fish at famed Tsukiji Fish Auction, the delicate but endless and arm-numbing fanning of the nori being toasted over a blazing grill; the apprentice crouched for a full hour over a bucket of octopus, massaging it to tenderness; the washing and washing and washing of premium rice; the slicing so deliberate it makes a surgeon resemble an addled seamstress; and the final, tiny, glistening, one-bite dishes, presented without fanfare, on Jiro’s trademark glazed black plates.

You learn things that ought to make you dislike him. And you can’t.

Jiro’s father left when he was 7 years old; his mother barred him from the house when he was 10. He arrived in Tokyo with 10 yen and found a job as the lowliest apprentice of the low in a sushi bar. And discovered his passion.

He failed his own family differently. He was never there.

Once, when his sons were young, Jiro got home from his normal 17-hour day and his younger son, Takashi, ran to his mother and said, in a panic, “Oka-san, there’s a strange man in the house!”

When the camera crew takes him to the cemetery in his native village, to his parents’ graves, he neglects to bring flowers. “I don’t know why I come here,” he tells his son. “My parents didn’t come to see me.”

He chuckles gently. No regrets.

He is still learning, he says. Innovating, but most emphatically not in the Californa Roll way; his creations are as spare as his frame.

He is also up-to-date on the ecological concerns associated with wild fish. The film contains a segment where he reminisces about the abundant tuna of old and expresses his concerns about overfishing. “You should balance profits with preserving resources,” he says.

He was no kind of father, he admits cheerily, until his sons were old enough to join him in the business. (The eldest will inherit Sukiyabashji Jiro; the youngest operates a sister restaurant, a mirror of the first in every way, in Roppongi.)

Instead of guilt or regret, he says, “I feel ecstatic every day. This is the spirit of shokunin (master of a craft).”

What are we to take away from this? That you can’t be both a genius and a teddy bear? That passion for your work trumps every other card in life? That, if you can’t get to Jiro’s, you shouldn’t ever eat sushi again?

I am taking this: that some moments in life are perfectionbut it took tremendous work to conjure them. As to sushi, I’ll still eat and enjoy it, but it will be Jiro’s tiny, glistening gems of which I will be dreaming.