December 05, 2012: “Jiro…” Revisited

December 5, 2012

jiro-banner_typeBack in April, I mentioned a movie that had just come out that I thought readers should be aware of: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Going to movies (and other luxuries) have not been part of my life plan for a while now, due to a very limited budget, but I was very much wanting to see this. Luckily for me, the best little library in the world, the Hudson Public Library, generously lobbed a lazy pop-fly to my part of the field, and “Jiro…” landed right in my glove!

I want to re-emphasize a thought I had when I first heard of “Jiro…” I thought it would be a great date for people to see the movie and go out for sushi after. Having seen the film, I can tell you that if you at all open to sushi, you will not be able to see the film without craving sushi…so fair warning. I was immune, as a vegetarian the only pieces that are made in the film I would be able to eat are the tamago (egg) and gourd ones. I would normally prefer other veggie sushi varieties, so I was free to scrutinize the techniques of not only the film, but the food artists portrayed in the film.

Jiro Ono is rare is in many ways, but the most unusual (at least to the Western mind) is his complete and utter devotion to the one craft of making the best sushi in the world. To all accounts (having  been awarded three Michelin stars…the highest honor afforded any chef) he has already achieved that goal, but having perfecting his craft for almost 80 years, Jiro is far from done. As the title suggests, sushi-making invades Jiro’s dreams at night, informing his artist’s mind on ideas that could improve, still, his craft.

Jiro has had a fairly tough life. He was practically on his own at age seven, when he started his apprenticeship in sushi-making. It takes ten years to be labeled as a bona-fide shokunin (sushi master.) That’s essentially a doctorate of sushi! Eventually, Jiro purchased his own sushi restaurant, the same one he has today, that is located in a Tokyo subway station and has only ten seats for diners! Needless to say, his restaurant is sometimes booked months in advance from people from all over the globe, some who travel all the way to Japan just for Jiro’s sushi!

“The reward is the craft,” says Jiro. Clearly, this kind of dedication is not solely about money. It is this very human quest to be the best at what you do, with absolutely no compromises, that I found the most inspirational about Jiro’s story. I’ve known individuals who have a great deal of this desire, and I certainly have it in myself, but I know of no one who has literally dedicated their entire life to one goal (‘tho Yoshio comes very, very close, but he is 20 years younger than Jiro.)

I was surprised that Jiro was not the only master portrayed in the film. It also looks into the lives of his two sons, both, in their own ways following in their father’s footsteps and the film addresses how being the son of a master affects them. The film also interviews a fish-master and a rice-master and all three masters point out the balance of fish and rice qualities that are needed to achieve unami or “perfect experience” when sushi is prepared just right.

I learned a number of things about sushi preparation that I didn’t know: that rice must be body temperature; that the fatty tuna the West values so much are considered “too strong” for the Japanese palate; that the quality and temperature of the rice cannot be understated, as rice is the foundation for sushi. At the beginning of the film, I noticed that the chefs were painting a liquid on the sushi and I was very curious to what it might be. At first, I thought it was a glaze of sorts, but later it was explained that the chefs apply the correct amount of shoyu to each piece of sushi, not allowing the diners to smother shoyu on pieces like they do in the West!

Jiro’s tenets of every great chef are worth noting:
1. They must take their work seriously.
2. They must consistently perform at their highest level.
3. They must aspire to improve their skill.
4. Cleanliness is tantamount.
5. They must have both impatience and stubbornness at having their own way.
6. Passion for their craft is essential.

The film-making of “Jiro…” is interesting as well. Director David Gelb was allowed much more access to not only locations, but also ideas, by virtue of  his foreigner status. He was also given the Japanese politeness of “extras” not staring at the camera. His ability to get such good photography in really tight places was very impressive. If you are interested in Japanese culture and an East-meets-West comparison, it is well worth seeing the film a second time with the director’s commentary.

Although there are many good quotes from all the masters portrayed in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” the one that sticks with me, and that I think defines every artist’s pain is from the fish-master,

“Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you are just fooling yourself…then you get depressed.”



  1. Very well written – nice tie in with life experiences and skill. Kinda like you!

  2. That’s news to me about toro. . .it was the most expensive thing to get on the menu and was highly prized by my Japanese friends!

  3. That’s one of the things I liked when I lived in Japan – the pride in one’s artistry, the importance of each detail in creating a work of art , including food. I don’t know of any other country where masters in many specialties are revered and honored.

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