25 May 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Better Half took me to see this last night as a surprise. It's an absolutely lovely documentary about a guy who is probably the world's greatest sushi chef. It's a simple, quiet sort of film (with lots of footage of breathtakingly gorgeous sushi - we immediately followed it up with dinner at Arami, which was phenomenal), but really enjoyable. It's not a biography, really, or even an in-depth look at the restaurant and how it runs, it's more like spending some time with this guy and people connected to him. A very minimalist narrative construction that feels unintrusive and intimate.

What is, perhaps, most inspiring about the film is Jiro's attitude towards his craft. It reminded me of a lecture Arnold Davidson gave a few years back on the idea of spiritual exercises (there's a syllabus online to a class of his on a related topic that I wish I could take, because it would probably be life-changing). It's this notion of repetition of a seemingly simple task until you can achieve perfection - there's something so powerful about this idea. Another wonderful moment in the film is when Jiro says that to be a great chef, you must be a great eater, and longingly says that if he had the palate of this other great French chef (whose name escapes me at the moment), he could probably prepare even better food. It's so touching. One could cynically say that the film taps into all your warm fuzzy feelings about vocation and the making of a masterpiece, but minimizes the self-abasement (which appears here as a gracious humility) and self-discipline (we are told that Jiro was basically not around for most of his son's lives, working from 5am to 10pm) and the costs to others of pursuing your own dreams (we hear nothing about his wife). There is a somewhat careful treatment of his sons and their training - we learn that one of his sons wanted to be a fighter pilot or a race car driver, that both wanted to go to college but their father wanted them to work in the restaurant. Also, we hear about how they will simply never be recognized as having the skill their father does - despite the fact that (and this is actually a bit of a bombshell that the film very subtly drops) it was actually his son who prepared all the food that the Michelin inspectors who awarded the restaurant 3 stars ate. So yes, one could be cynical and look at the realities underlying this kind of perfection, but to be honest, I'd rather just enjoy the pleasant lyricism of the film's rendering of genius. There is simply no question, at any point, as to whether devoting your life to making sushi, or knowing everything about what makes tuna good (actually, one of my favorite characters in the film was an uncompromising tuna buyer, also a master of his craft) is a worthwhile pursuit. I think it helps that Jiro tastes the food as he prepares it, so at least you get the sense that he reaps the benefits of his own labors somewhat.

Anyways, a lovely film, and definitely a new item on the places to eat at some point in my life list.

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