By Michael Calleri
There are people obsessed with eating sushi, and there is one man obsessed with preparing it.
His name is Jiro Ono, and he just might be the most unique chef on the planet. Ono lives to make sushi. In fact, "lives" may be too inexact a word. In reality, he exists to make sushi. The entire fiber of his being is dedicated to creating the most perfect sushi morsels in what is considered by many to be the world's most important sushi restaurant. Ono's story is utterly simple and completely fascinating.
The movie is called "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi." It's a documentary by David Gelb, who spent nearly two years on the creation of his film. At its basic level, it's about a man and raw fish, but it's so much more than that.
Jiro Ono is now 86-years old. He has been working in restaurants in his native Japan since he was 15. He left home at an early age and always remembers the dictate of his elders. That dictate was this: If you're going to do something in life, do it well. Ono is now considered the greatest sushi chef in the world, which is saying something. Food critics and gourmands, dedicated fans and sushi fanatics all sing his praise. And they pay huge amounts of money to taste Ono's sushi. Some are epicureans, those folks who must eat what is considered the best regardless of where you have to go to get it. Some are sycophants, those slavish compulsives who have to do what others are doing because it's a hot thing to do. And others are ordinary people, eager to sample their favorite food regardless of the cost.
Ono is the owner and sushi master of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a modest 10-seat sushi-only restaurant, located in the basement of a Tokyo high-rise building, literally around the corner from the Ginza subway stop. There are no appetizers. No desserts. It's sushi and only sushi. This humble restaurant has received a glowing 3-star review from France's prestigious Michelin guide. Sushi devotees make pilgrimages to Tokyo to taste what is often just a 15-minute meal. All prospective guests reserve a seat at the counter months in advance, often flying to Tokyo from somewhere quite a distance away. You eat what the chef has prepared based on what's available at the seafood market. The cost of this celebrated sushi experience begins at 30,000 Yen, which is about $370.
There is nothing comparable in the entire world. Ono is one-of-a-kind.
If the above details were the sole information offered in this superb movie, it would be a winner. Ono is an interesting character in his own right, and the cinematography, especially of the sushi preparations, is outstanding. We watch astonished at how new employees don't get to touch any fish until they've learned how to wring out a towel. It could take days, perhaps even weeks, to get the wringing technique down to perfection. How about tenderizing octopus? Should it be a 30-minute rubdown or should it take 40-minutes? Yes, Ono massages each raw octopus so that the flesh is flawless. You have to see it to believe it. Sushi-making aside, there's more to the story.
At the core of "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" is the relationship between Ono and his oldest son, Yoshikazu, who is in his early fifties. The son is as dedicated to his father as both men are to sushi, but the elder Ono holds pride of place. He's first among not-quite equals. At this point in his life, Ono might have retired, but he has no interest in it. He works 365 days a year because his passion demands it.
By now, Yoshikazu thought he might be the owner and chief sushi master of the restaurant, but it's not to be. And the father really knows how to needle the son, who works in the shadow of the greatest sushi legacy on Earth. Yoshikazu is the heir apparent, but Jiro isn't simply going to turn in his knives and relax at home. When will it happen? Nobody knows. And there's the overriding question: Will Sukiyabashi Jiro be the same restaurant without the elder Ono?
A younger son, Takashi, has his own sushi place. Is he smart or afraid of his father? You can see that Jiro loves his sons because there's an ever-so-slight gleam in his eyes when he talks about them. Ono is responsible for seeing to it that his staff is always learning new details. He believes that to impart knowledge is an honorable thing. As with sushi lovers around the world, his team is in awe of Jiro Ono. If you work for him, you can write your sushi ticket anywhere.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a humble restaurant. It's run by a man obsessed. You can decide if it's a good or a bad obsession. Ono seems to have no life other than sushi. We know there are the sons, and there's his wife at home. You wonder what he does after nine o'clock at night when he's in his house. What are his mornings like? Ono now allows Yoshikazu to select the fresh fish at the wholesale seafood market, which is a crack-of-dawn experience. Jiro remains a bit of a mystery man.
The movie does offer some clues as to Ono's obsession, and there's a pleasure to be found in discussing his work and life after you've seen the film. You can accept that there are very few people like him, a person willing to turn over one's entire existence, indeed, one's entire being, to conducting a simple act day-in-and-day out. Jiro slices raw fish. Certainly, he has turned his skills with a knife into an art form. The documentary is only 81-minutes long, but it's filled with information. I truly wanted it to go on. Jiro is a taskmaster and a perfectionist, but he's fun to watch. He's the best "character" I've seen in quite a while.
Like many, I don't eat sushi. It's certainly a tribute to both the film and to Jiro Ono that after seeing it, I wanted to try some beautifully prepared raw fish. Perhaps better stated, I think what I wanted to taste was some of Jiro Ono's sushi. There can be no finer praise for a movie
Michael Calleri is a free-lance reviewer who writes and talks about films for various media.
"Jiro Dreams Of Sushi" is currently in release in the United States.