JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011)
Running Time: 81 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: David Gelb
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
One of the first pieces I wrote, for my high school yearbook no less, was a parody of a WW2 propaganda movie which invariably had a scene in which a captured American, about to be tortured, would claim the protection of the Geneva Conventions. But, the Japanese officer would remind him; Japan never signed the Geneva Conventions. (In fact the United States signed, ratified and probably wrote the Geneva Conventions and incorporated them in our laws, but breaks them at will because we’re the cops and executioners of the world and recognize no International courts of justice.) But, I digress.
The documentary film, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, about an 85 year old master sushi chef with a ten seat restaurant located in the Ginza subway station, presents images, I assume high definition images, of single pieces of sushi which to look at in the confines of a movie (or screening room) seat, becomes torture. I’d give away the plans to the Panama Canal for the uni alone.
I first became acquainted with sushi through the urging of the International Boy (as he was then) of Mystery C.J. Hinke. There was a Japanese Restaurant on 47th St called Kamahachi Sushi, apparently the New York branch of a well-known Japanese chain. It was one of the cheapest places in New York to eat. I really liked the Chicken Sunomuno, which you can’t get anywhere anymore because apparently it’s illegal. This was approximately 1967. They eventually opened a branch in Greenwich Village off 6th Ave. before going out of business. But, it was followed by a flood of sushi joints, maybe not as thrifty, but no complaints.
Those were still innocent days. Uni, or sea urchin, grew near lobsters and were considered a pest by the lobstermen who sold them for next to nothing. Most Americans were still making fun of raw fish, so, you know, more for me. Those days are dead and gone, never to return.
Not too many years ago I was very close to some Japanese people. I am something of an aficionado of classic Japanese film. I had seen the complete oeuvre of Yashahiro Ozu twice when another retrospective presented itself and I took them to the films. The concept of classical film is not a feature of Japanese life in Japan so it was a new experience for them. To watch the films they made rice balls, rice covered in nori (seaweed) with various stuffings like sour plum. There were also difuku, sweet doughy dumplings with red bean paste inside. I realized that Japanese people are obsessed with food. Not only that, but the people in Ozu films are obsessed with food. They are always eating. Meeting in restaurants, appearing as guests for dinner carrying neatly wrapped packages tied in a bow containing food. Even business offices seemed to have a place to sit down and drink tea and maybe have a little snack. In one film a long time married couple that have been fighting for the entire film and look to be breaking up resolve their differences when they meet in the kitchen for a mutual midnight snack. The picture is called THE TASTE OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE.
I have a favorite Chinese restaurant in New York located in a strange and out-of-the-way neighborhood, which is never the less near Midtown. It is very high quality and I have been eating there since it was tucked away in a Chinatown alley, then, improbably in a New Jersey diner off Route 46 and back to Manhattan. Robert Sestema, food critic of the Voice, called it the best-known unknown Chinese restaurant in New York. But, it has been discovered by the Japanese community. They know and respect great food.
I had even heard that when one went out to eat in Tokyo that one went to one place for noodles, another for sushi, another for katsu (pork chop), one place for dumplings and another for sweets. Every place had its specialty and the idea of one restaurant doing everything is a relatively recent import from the West.
Jiro Ono, 85, is recognized as the world master of sushi making. He owns a small, ten seat restaurant, Sukiybashi Jiro, in the basement of the Ginza subway station. He has three stars from the Michelin Guide. To eat there reservations are taken a month in advance. The minimum price for dinner is 30,000 yen but the actual price is based on the market price of the fish available for that day. Dinner is “omakasi” or chief’s choice. There are no appetizers, no choice of miso soup or salad. Jiro disdains clients who fill up on appetizers and then eat five or six pieces of sushi. The chef makes a piece of sushi and places it in front of the customer. Dinner consists of 20 pieces of sushi. Jiro says that the order of the sushi is important and he likes to think of dinner as a piece of music. There are three movements etc. Watching the fish come in order was sheer fucking torture. I’ll tell him everything. I’d make up secrets to tell him.
Our Beatrice to this sushi paradise is Masuhiro Yamamoto, a Tokyo food critic. Jiro works alongside his eldest son, Yoshikazu. His younger son has opened his own place as a branch of the restaurant in the Roppongi Hills, Roppongi Jiro. The restaurants are identical except for the fact that they are mirror images. Its seems as though while Jiro Ono is left handed, his younger son is right handed, so the restaurant was built that way. Though the standards and quality are just as high as the Ginza location, some prefer it because it is more “informal.” That means some feel too intimidated to eat under the eyes of The Master.
There is always fluttering in the background; the beating of the wings of mortality and speculation about the restaurant surviving its master. Perhaps the public is fickle, but as Yamamoto tells us, every time the critics from Michelin ate at the restaurant, Yoshikazu prepared their sushi.
But the film really isn’t about raw fish but about ethics and existentialism. If you are going to make sushi there must be a way to make, or even just approach, perfect sushi. We see Yoshikazu toasting each sheet of nori, never losing the precision of what he is doing while talking to the camera. And its a humble task that maybe should have been left to an apprentice yet Yoshikazu seems satisfied in doing even this small component of the Greatest Sushi in the World. Speaking to the filmmakers while preparing some fish over an open fire, one can’t help notice that the fire is made of some light, reed like wood as if no other wood would do. Preparing the rice too is done to an exacting recipe. They even make their own vinegar, which is available for purchase only in Japan.
When they tried to draft me back in the ’60s I was told about the five ways of doing things but in fact there is only one way of doing things in Jiro’s world–the right way. Of course the most important component of the sushi is the fish. Jiro stopped going to the fabulous Tokyo fish market some years ago and now Yoshikazu does the buying. There he buys tuna from a similarly obsessed dealer who says that if there are ten tuna in the market then one must be best and that’s the tuna he wants. Other men he meets gossip about the dealer who was the grandson of the God of Eels. I mean, whom are you going to buy eels from? There is a whole network of fish otaku that have supplied Jiro for decades.
I have been told that there is a machine in Queens that can make either 300,000 or 350,000 pieces of sushi per day. They used to supply Teriyaki Boy. When I worked near one in midtown, the sushi went half price after four p.m., which is when I had my lunch. In my neighborhood they used to give it away when they closed at night because day old sushi has no value at all. Believe me machine made sushi; a runty piece of fish on a snow-white lump of cold rice is still pretty delicious. But to even look at it and a piece of Jiro’s sushi is sort of like comparing a… well just about any cheap car’s name can go here, and a Ferrari. One is made to a price; the other is made without boundaries, made as well as humanly possible.
The big question is why does someone do that, put all the time and effort to do something as well as it can be done without thought to the economics or commercial viability of this quest? But some people won’t ever ask that question. For them not only can there be no other way but there isn’t even the question of any other way. You want sushi? This is the way it should be made, has to be made. You want a car? This is the way it should be made. Too expensive? There are those who will make sushi/car for your pocketbook. But, not me.
This ethic can be found in every line of work. If this were the way things were done in the film industry they’d only make five films a year. If teachers valued the time they spent teaching and marked their students accordingly, there would be rioting in the streets by parents of failing children. If our lives have any meaning then our labor must be directed to doing something and it only makes sense if what we do is done right. To do otherwise is a waste of a human life.
Jiro is still not totally satisfied that he has achieved perfection. He thinks that a great chef is a great eater. A great chef has to have the aroma sensitivity and sophisticated palate of a great eater. He says that if he had the equipment of Joel Robuchon he could make even better sushi. (This statement gave me a dream where I was eating in a high end restaurant seemingly located in an old funeral home at the end of Second Ave. where I was dissed by the staff and kept waiting for my meal, which, when it arrived, was a small, white rectangular plate with multi-colored smears adorned on the edges with miniature techno food in the middle. I don’t blame anyone.)
There is another theme in JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, that of elegiac dread that I don’t know if the filmmakers were even aware of when making this film. There was a concern that after Jiro died that he might take his art with him and it would be lost for the ages, despite evidence to the contrary, what with his two sons and a seemingly unending flow of acolytes in training. Jiro speaks of the fish that he is no longer able to serve and enumerates them. When tuna is talked about there is a genuine concern about the future. The plea, made in the knowledge that it will go unheeded and unheard, is that the young and small tuna be left to mature and reproduce before it becomes extinct. But even more ominous is the prospect that also becoming extinct will be the client who can appreciate sushi at this level.
I know film and tv is now dominated by people who pander to the growing or rather shrinking attention span of the younger audience. There is even a school of film criticism, now limited to the UK but inevitably coming here soon, based on how boring a film is. CITIZEN KANE? It has all of these “slow” bits. Boring. An occasional check of tv reveals a montage made up exclusively of traveling shots, mostly senselessly, but the constant motion seems to hold the attention of the audience like keys jangled in front of a drooling infant. And why are hand held shots necessary on sitcoms? Even documentaries are making semi-circular tracking shots around simple talking heads.
There is a proverb, I don’t recall if it’s Chinese, Mongolian or Kazakh, that goes something like this: As difficult as it is to find a really great horse, it is even more difficult to find a good judge of horse flesh. When I was in Rome in the late ‘70s to go out for dinner in the evening was to spend the evening at dinner. It wasn’t dinner and a show or dinner and a movie. It was an evening at table. I have made inquiries and I am reliably informed that this is no more. People eat and run. So the unasked question is even if Sukiybashi Jiro goes on for another hundred years, will there be people who will be around who can appreciate it? The only way for Jiro and his sons to go on is to believe that there will be. I hope that there will be too.
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