The Confucian saying goes, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi chef behind the counter of a world-renowned 10-seat sushi restaurant in Tokyo, takes this ethos to another level. In his 75 years of work, he has never taken a day off except to attend funerals and, by his own mirthful admission, detests all holidays. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a love song to the ethereally exquisite world of sushi, but ultimately, it’s about dedicating your life to mastering a skill and working at it with unwavering dedication. In some sense, it is not about falling in love with *your* work, but more so about falling in love with work. Perfectionism, fanatical dedication, and humility are all we really need to know about Jiro.
Director David Gelb’s cinematography lends itself especially well to the subject matter. Close-up shots of the sushi feel like a dance performance, a time-lapse series of intense, gleaming beauty. The nigiri flutters like a bird as it gracefully settles after being shaped by the mind-blowingly deft handiwork of the chefs.
Jiro’s restaurant is the perfect balance between tradition and creativity. Rigorous routine notwithstanding – Jiro even rides the subway in the same position every morning – he is a rebel. He explains that even after 75 years of doing this, he is always looking ahead and improving his skills. Every element of every ingredient’s preparation is dissected to the minutest of details. For example, octopus has to be hand-massaged for 45 minutes before it can be prepared. The kind of meticulous, exacting standards that he holds himself up to apply to his entire staff, and with even more strictness to his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. One of his apprentices shares the story of how it took him 200 tries over the span of 4 months to make the grilled egg “cake” for the egg sushi—when he finally got it right, he cried with pride. The training takes ten years of sunrise-to-sunset work and few chefs can endure it, but Jiro offers the knowledge for free.
His approach is a far cry from the despotic, sadistic Gordon Ramsey star chef prototype. Obsessive dedication is demanded for its own sake and value—Jiro would serve this kind of food even if he had one customer. His mantra, repeated throughout the movie, is that this is not about money but building a skill and only showcasing the best. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable. The vendors he works with in Tokyo’s famous Tsukuji fish market are equally skilled and “anti-establishment” themselves. Some of them only work with Jiro and will purchase one fish a day. The film offers a glimpse into this underground world of connoisseurship that exceeds all imagination; in an indicative scene, one monger can predict what a fish will taste like on instinct alone. Most of them have been working for decades, almost as long as Jiro himself, carrying on traditions and refusing to modernize for the sake of profit. The rice vendor tells a story of how he refused to sell his rice to a major hotel chain because they “would simply not be able to cook it right.”
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a fascinating look into Japanese culture and traditions. It is also the story of a place where, by work being done for its own sake, beauty through simplicity also follows.