Film #227: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

jdosdirector: David Gelb
language: Japanese
length: 82 minutes
watched on: 14 September 2016

I watched this at a friend’s house – we’d bought snacks from the Japanese discount store Don Quijote, and were going to put it on as background noise, but ended up getting engrossed in it. It’s a documentary about Jiro, the sushi chef in Ginza who was awarded with three Michelin stars a few years back. Ultimately, it’s food porn, especially the middle section, which is voices talking over images of perfect little bitesize nigiri-zushi being prepared. And there we were with our junk food sitting in front of a TV.

About halfway through the movie, I came to the sudden epiphany that this movie is the reason I “know” anything about Michelin star restaurants in Japan, anything about professional sushi chefs, in fact even going so far as the Japanese work ethic (at least before I came to Japan; my thoughts are more nuanced in some ways now) – I think a lot of what Westerners know about Japanese food culture come directly from this movie. And people like to generalize.

Some things I’ve heard include that all Michelin star restaurants are tiny little stores that are impossible to book, and where the master of the shop doesn’t have a menu, he’ll just serve you food in the way he sees fit, in the perfect order. I’m sure some other Michelin star restaurants do this too… but I’m not convinced that’s the norm. Or that sushi chefs must take a ten year apprenticeship – I’m now realizing that this is probably only the case with Jiro, as it would be an untenable industry if this were the case generally. Or that sons always inherit the family business in Japan. Or that Japanese people always have an extreme live-to-work attitude like Jiro… I could go on.

Jiro’s restaurant is undoubtedly in a dingy location, downstairs, tucked in a corner of Ginza metro station. But Ginza is very upmarket. His son’s almost-identical restaurant is in Roppongi Hills or somewhere nicer.

Certainly his food looks absolutely delicious. Not only the fish sushi, but also stuff like the tamago-yaki, which does not look like omelette, more like a cake. Apparently this is the thing that takes the apprentices the longest to learn. Even the rice looks more delicious than usual, and a whole section of the film was devoted to waxing lyrical about the rice.

But that’s what a lot of the film was: waxing lyrical. Not a critical word is offered to Jiro. It’s only positive words that we hear. He’s the best, he’s such an amazing chef, and so on. Never mind that he doesn’t seem to be very friendly, or that his children’s upbringing was less than satisfactory, or that his work ethic is positively toxic – it sounds like they’ve been forced into taking on the family business, after their father was absent most of their childhood working early morning until after midnight. A big part of what is wrong with Japan, the overworking culture here – although I’ve largely managed to avoid overworking per se, I do work unsociable hours, weekends and late evenings – is going to tip me over some kind of edge eventually (if it hasn’t already), and I’m going to want out.

I got bored of this, and started to switch off towards the last third of the film, when I felt the point had been laboured enough. They did go to Tsukiji fish market, too, which was interesting, as I’ve never been there. It’s a nice-looking movie, and the food porn sections are really well-made in particular… just take it with a pinch of salt. And if you’ve got this far, be sure to leave a comment! What’s the best sushi you’ve ever had? Mine is probably in Kichijoji with the really long eel (part of a cheap lunch set).

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