In Pursuit of the Impossible – Review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro…Sushi is a documentary by David Gelb about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old sushi chef who is recognized by Japanese government as a national treasure for his contributions to Japanese cuisine. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, has 3 Micheline stars (highest achievement possible), 10 seats, a clinical setting, and a $400 price-tag for 20 pieces of sushi, alcohol not included.

Documentary, vis-a-vis an interview with a leading Japanese food critic, reveals within the first 10 minutes the five attributes that makes Jiro a great sushi chef:

1. He takes work seriously, gets up at 5am, returns home at 10pm every day, 7 days a week.
2. He’s never satisfied with his work, so he’s always trying to improve.
3. He’s OCD about cleanliness
4. He’s a leader, not a collaborator.  He’s a dictator and he makes it clear that he’s not to be fucked with.
5. He’s passionate about his work, so can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop working.

The rest of the film is a hodge-podge of examples of his attributes without revealing much about how Jiro became who he is.  While I believe that greatness is never an accident of history, the force of character necessary to produce it is very much a product of circumstances and context.  People don’t just wake up with the attributes necessary for greatness.  They’re driven perhaps by necessity, or fundamental emotions such as rage, fear, humiliation, and hate.  We’re provided glimpses of the circumstances and the socio-cultural environments Jiro has experienced — eg. World War II, poverty, abandonment by parents at young age — but they’re not examined enough to give us a clearer sense of how they shaped and motivated Jiro.

The effect is a film that features a dignified and inspirational character, but the film itself isn’t inspirational or educational. Most people aren’t interested in their work, they work for vacation or retirement or survival.  My guess is that these same people want to be passionate about, in love with work.  Dreams of Sushi shows us someone who is passionate about his craft, but fails to show the viewer how to be like him.  Gelb doesn’t ask the right questions and he doesn’t frame and arrange the material in a way that would provide deeper insights into Jiro’s psyche. Even the contrasts between Jiro and his sons, Jiro and his apprentices are superficial, aren’t revealing of the character and personality traits, the circumstances that separate the great from the good, the good from the middling.  The story Gelb seems to tell is that Jiro is the greatest because he’s more passionate and works harder than everyone else.  It’s that simple, you can do it too!

But it’s not that simple.  It takes a deep and broad sense of responsibility to become passionate about something. Steve Jobs was passionate about his work — he literally worked himself to death — because he truly believed that he was responsible for everything that happens in the world, that he was the only person who could inspire people to become revolutionaries, artists.  That without his products and ideas, the world would stagnate.  Lady Gaga is working herself to death because she believes it’s her divine duty to help every kid who feels weird to reach their full potential by accepting their weirdness as a source of strength.  The film doesn’t make it easy for me to figure out Jiro’s sense of responsibility.  We know he feels responsible for his family and apprentices.  Does he also feel responsible for Japanese cuisine and culture, which the film suggests is in decline (eg conveyer belt sushi)?  Does he think that his work sets an example for Japanese youth who, as the film could’ve suggested more clearly, are slipping into mediocrity, becoming lazy, shiftless?  Put differently, what does a great piece of sushi represent?  Is Jiro’s contribution to the world his sushi, or is it what his sushi represents — his mindset, his rebellious nature, his dedication to his craft, his high standards?  My bet is that Jiro seeks perfection — the impossible — not for its own sake, but because he believes his sushi, though sampled by few, has a significant impact on people around the world.  That without his sense of perfection, people, including those who don’t eat sushi, will lower their standards, which will in turn stall world development.

If a deep and broad sense of responsibility is necessary for passion and greatness, then how did Jiro acquire his sense?  Film mentions his abandonment by his parents; the poverty he grew up with; barely mentions his experiences during World War II.  There are suggestions of rage against his parents.  There must’ve been fear during the war.  Humiliation while in poverty.  There was disobedience at school.  What of these experiences, and are these the experiences his sons need to have if they are to ever match him in skill?

Film does make clear that those who are passionate about their craft don’t work for or care about money.  The rice dealer Jiro works will only sell to those who can appreciate it, who know how to properly cook it.  Same with Jiro’s fish dealer. Jiro is great because he surrounds himself with like-minded people, and these people ensure that he receives the highest quality ingredients.  Gelb, however, doesn’t ask Jiro if he has ever been worried about money.  It’s another frustrating example of Gelb failing to capture the struggles within that one has to overcome to live a dignified life, to achieve greatness.  There’s no instruction (not the right word), he just presents greatness as is, something to be admired that few can achieve.

There are more flaws, but I don’t have time to discuss Gelb’s use of music and cinematography.  In spite of the many flaws, the film is worth watching, simply because Gelb features someone who is extraordinarily dignified, interesting, and inspirational. Funny too.

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