'Sushi': Tasty Doc Despite Unfresh Approach
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Ultimate simplicity leads to purity." That's the explanation a food expert gives for the apparently sublime elegance of the sushi crafted by Jiro Ono. The octogenarian chef runs a small (10-seat) restaurant in Tokyo where a meal will set you back something like 30,000 yen (over $300 American). Michelin has awarded the joint three stars, making it one of fewer than 100 restaurants in the world. That has got to be some good sushi. And if you have any kind of affinity for the food at all, you will very much want to dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro, regardless of the distance or cost, after seeing "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a cinematic portrait of Jiro and his art directed and shot by David Gelb.
The bald, lean-jawed Ono has a face the camera loves in a particular way: While his general air of impassivity sometimes carries an implication of sternness, most of the time he's an appealingly enigmatic tabula rasa. Having been making sushi for as long as he has, he has a deep understanding of the code of the Japanese "shokunin," or craftsman: "He repeats the same thing every day," one admirer notes. The viewer learns the particulars of making the perfect sushi, and if you're under the impression that the dish is cold raw fish, you've got another think coming.
Jiro and his sons are shown taking great pains over particularities of temperature, especially in the rice department. The minutiae of preparation is really key here, and since in an ideal situation every piece of sushi is made in front of the diner right before he or she eats it, the rhythm of a sushi meal is dependent in part on the pace of the eater, which in turn effects the preparation, and so on. And while throughout the film Jiro's facial expression remains the same, more or less, the visual variety of his presentations, while never ostentatious, is beautifully conveyed here.
Gelb brings his camera deep behind the scenes, to the purchasing of the fish themselves. Interestingly, even what one would think of as the grittier aspects of sushi preparation are executed by Jiro and his crew with a certain panache. The cinematic depiction of how your sushi gets made is a lot more aesthetically unobjectionable than, say, of how your sausage gets made (see Bertolucci's "1900" or Olmi's "The Tree of Wooden Clogs"), or, for that matter, of how your horsemeat steaks get made (see Schroeder's "Maitresse"). It's all fascinatingly exacting, so much so that one is hardly surprised when one apprentice reveals that it's only after 10 years of training that a would-be chef gets to cook the egg for a particular piece. OK, then.
On the downside, director Gelb would have done well to take the advice concerning simplicity. As interesting as this stuff is, Gelb feels the need to trick it up a bit with varying fast-and-slow motion footage, and a truckload of Phillip Glass music. I'm a Glass fan, but in combination with the in-camera trickery, I was thinking, "This guy's trying for a 'Koyaanisqatsi' effect," after which I thought, "Why is this guy going for a 'Koyaanisqatsi' effect?" And when the Prelude to Bach's First Cello Suite came up on the soundtrack -- man, if Bach was around today to collect residuals he would be one rich church organist -- I actually thought, "Is this a temp music track?" the cliché visual trickery and the way overworked musical choices sure don't constitute a deal-breaker, and it's not as if I think Gelb should have gone full Ozu or any such thing, but they do give the movie a tired feel, which does a little disservice to a guy whose sushi, I'm sure, is always extremely fresh.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs athttp://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.