At some point, life’s obligations take over. You get busy at work; friends and family get married; a home maintenance project becomes urgent. Things you want to do suffer while things you must do exert an ever-increasing dominance over your time. Despite the seemingly universal nature of this problem, David Gelb’s documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi features a man who appears to have never experienced it.
For more than seventy-five years,the making of sushi has dominated Jiro Ono’s days. Early in the film, he declares that “[y]ou have to fall in love with your work” and “dedicate your life to mastering your skill.” He takes this to such an extreme level that even on days when he attended funerals or received prestigious awards, he went out of his way to miss as little work as possible. He comes to work early and returns home late. He dreads holidays, and says that he will not retire until he loses the capability to work. He says this even though he will turn 90 in October of 2015. In this world, we see few examples of such singular focus. The film makes much of his dedication, and the culinary world reveres him for for the practiced perfection it brings to the sushi Jiro serves. But is it really an admirable trait?
On one hand, Jiro possesses an obvious appeal. His life appears to be beautifully simple–he has no goal apart from being the best shokunin he can, and apparently has no other obligations that interfere with it. He conveys a confidence and certainty not only about this work, but about its function as the defining characteristic of his existence. Many experts will tell you that Jiro makes the best sushi in the world, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi exhibits no modesty about portraying this man in a reverent light. On other hand, would you want to perform such similar tasks every day for seventy-five years? The film invites us to read into Jiro’s consciousness that he has such a nuanced understanding of sushi and everything necessary for its production that these seemingly “similar tasks” in fact contain an infinite number of experiential possibilities. Otherwise, how could it be true, like the film wants us to understand, both that he must make sushi and that he wants to make sushi? But even if we concede that point, doesn’t Jiro miss out on so much? What about a social life? Vacations? Time for reading and watching films? Time to spend with his wife? Is it worth it to become the best at one thing, even if that means the exclusion of all other things?
Gelb’s minimalist film remains nearly silent on these concerns. It drops only a few tantalizing hints at Jiro’s experiences outside the kitchen, like being forced to leave home at age 9 and spending a little bit of time visiting with a group of childhood classmates who describe young Jiro as a troublemaker. The rarity of these non-sushi parts of his life gives them added significance, but also a kind of sadness, as when Jiro’s son Yoshikazu describes seeing his father so seldomly growing up that he once asked his mother for the identity of the strange man sleeping in her bed. Indeed, Yoshikazu did not get to know his father until his teenage years when, as the eldest son, he went to work as his apprentice. Now in his 50s, Yoshikazu still patiently works under his father and awaits his understood obligation to run the restaurant when his father is no longer able. Much of Tokyo waits too, wondering quite openly whether Yoshikazu will be able to maintain the business after his father’s departure. This happens even though Michelin reports that the restaurant’s consistent 3-star rating is based upon a variety of visits, none of which featured Jiro’s sushi–on each visit, the Michelin diners happened to eat sushi prepared by Yoshikazu.
In the end, Jiro Dreams of Sushi remains some of the most fascinating food content ever made. No matter what your life might look like, consideration of Jiro’s invites introspection. What single aspect of life is most important to you and how important is it? What have you done today to improve yourself? Even, perhaps, what other part of your busy life did you miss out on to watch the film? Whatever your answers, you will certainly have a reaction to this man, perhaps similar to my mix of admiration, pity, fascination, and curiosity. I’m still uncertain who Jiro is or what he truly represents, but I can’t stop thinking about him.