Saturday, July 28, 2012

Available on DVD: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Here’s your Zen koan for today: Is it possible to create something so pure in its simplicity that it disappears?

Sure it is, answers Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary by David Gelb. Just come down to Jiro Ono’s tiny restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building, near the Ginza subway stop. There you will be presented with what many food connoisseurs consider the finest sushi on the planet, gastronomic objects unparalleled in their unadorned elegance. Seconds later, they’ll be gone.

Be prepared to make your reservations at least a month in advance, though, and expect a bill starting at $365; also, don’t hope for much in the way of ambience. Sukiyabashi Jiro holds only 10 seats, doesn’t offer appetizers, and is a bare-bones experience that’s purely about the fish. A food critic named Yamamoto admits he’s nervous every time he eats there, whether from the pressure of living up to the food or simply from being in the presence of God.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a foodie’s delight, obviously, and best viewed either on a full stomach or with restaurant reservations immediately following. Gelb films the preparation of the nigiri with appropriate reverence: soaring strings on the soundtrack as knives glide through the red, glistening chunks of tuna in slo-mo close-up. But the film says as much about the human price one pays for perfection — or the pursuit thereof — and it’s not in dollars or yen.

At 85, Ono is the acknowledged master of his art. Michelin gave Sukiyabashi Jiro a rare three-star rating, meaning that it’s "worth traveling to the country just to eat there." Superstar chef Anthony Bourdain has bowed down and declared his unworthiness, and the Japanese government has named Jiro a living national treasure. In person, he’s smiling but ascetic, a lean, weathered artisan whose devotion to his craft is complete. Gelb’s camera follows him to the Tsukiji fish market, where we get a hint of what makes Ono’s sushi stand out from the pack (he has special arrangements with vendors whose standards are as exacting as his). Would you be willing to massage an octopus for 45 minutes, until its flesh possesses just the right amount of chewability? Jiro is. "It always has to taste better than last time," he says.

It’s not that Ono’s past is unimportant; he just doesn’t have much of one. Having left home at 9 — and being told by his parents not to come back — he became a sushi apprentice at a time when the food was still sold in the streets of Tokyo, well before it achieved global fame with the introduction of the California roll in the 1980s. We see old photos of Jiro in his youth, but they convey little. More compellingly complicated is the master’s relationship with his two sons. The elder, Yoshikazu, is still his father’s apprentice at 50, and he wonders if he’ll ever be his own man. ("Jiro’s ghost will always be there watching," he says with resignation at one point.)

A younger son, Takashi, is charged with the lesser task of managing a second restaurant, in Roppongi Hills, identical to the mother ship in every respect other than that everything’s reversed (the father’s a lefty, the son a righty). Both sons wanted to go to college, but Ono wouldn’t let them, and Yoshikazu says he hated making sushi at first. "I wasn’t much of a father," Jiro admits.

But what’s attentive parenthood when the universe is calling through the daily ritual of striving for the ineffable? The film’s title isn’t kidding -- Jiro really does dream of sushi — and his approach to life is the same as his approach to food: Do the same thing every day, only simpler and better. That means the same train to work, the same seat on that train, the same lean slice of akami placed just so on the same shaped ball of rice. "I don’t think I have achieved perfection," Jiro says, "but I feel ecstatic every day."

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