This moving profile of an enigmatic Tokyo-based sushi chef transcends its humble subject matter.
"You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and the key to being regarded honourably." As spoken by renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono, this dedication explains both the spirit of the shokunin – the true craftsman – and the pervading theme of David Gelb’s superlative documentary.
Set to the gentle strains of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Philip Glass, Gelb takes as his subject the life and work of the 85-year-old chef and his two sons, all of whom are based in Tokyo. His film explores the sheer level of perfectionism and creativity required to attain (and retain) three Michelin stars, the highest honour in the restaurant business.
Yet it’s so much more than just foodie porn with a tasteful classical soundtrack – it’s an elegant study of Japanese culture and the shokunin spirit which encompasses an ongoing quest for purity and refinement. The film also explores the complexity of kinship, as the two middle-aged siblings stand in the shadow of their father, both facing very different and daunting paths ahead of his succession. Jiro’s spirit and his traditional family values were forged at an early age.
Despite being told that the history of sushi was already so long that nothing new could be invented, the young chef had sushi in his dreams: "I would jump out of bed at night with ideas," he recalls with a glint in his eye. He not only created new dishes but, like all great pioneers, he continues to refine the classics.
This commitment to innovation is evident in every kitchen scene, as his team work in quiet reverence to their sage-like head chef, their customers and their ingredients. The exquisite seven-course menu they create is what a top Tokyo food critic describes as akin to a concerto divided into movements, with classics such as tuna in the first, followed by a catch-of-the-day cadenza and then a traditional omelette finale. And it’s all overseen by Jiro, the conductor.
But after 75 years at the top of his game – a time during which the sushi boom saw massive changes in the availability of quality fish – Jiro and his sons seem acutely aware that the unshakable commitment to the shokunin spirit is both why and how the ageing chef keeps going.
While Takashi, the younger, more competitive son, breaks away to start his own successful branch of the restaurant, his dutiful older brother, Yoshikazu, must eventually succeed Jiro, with the knowledge that he may never surpass his father’s brilliance.
An octogenarian sushi chef documentary? Hmm…
Sushi and symphonies, with a brief bow to sustainability.
A beautiful ode to an artisan and his culture.