The Michelin Guide to restaurants describes the best as “worth a detour” or “worth a special journey.” They describe a tiny ten-seat sushi restaurant in Tokyo as worth the trip to Japan. If you want to eat there, call before you book your plane tickets. They are booked three months in advance for meals that can cost $300 per diner. This documentary is about Jiro Ono the owner of the restaurant and its chef, who has devoted his life to perfecting the art of sushi. Director/cinematographer David Gelb makes the sushi look utterly luscious but he also makes it look exquisite as sculpture.
The movie is fascinating because of the details we learn about sushi and the dedication and artistry of the man who has devoted his life to it. Jiro-San’s attention to every possible detail from buying the freshest and best ingredients each day at the market to the balletic gestures in assembling each piece and placing it before the customer is mesmerizing. There is a holiness in his devotion to perfection as a way of honoring the food he prepares and the people who eat it. Apprentices must work just squeezing the towels for a long time before they are allowed to touch any food and for years before what they prepare is considered suitable for the customers. And they constantly re-consider their preparation to look for ways to improve it. Jiro-San announces a major change he has implemented — instead of massaging the octopus for half an hour, they will massage it for 45 minutes. We also see Jiro-San with his son, who works in the restaurant (another son runs an off-shoot location). And we see him in a rare moment away from work, at a reunion with old friends.
Sushi was once seen as a rare treat for wealthy people on special occasions. But the success of chefs like Jiro-San has made sushi so popular that it is at risk from over-fishing. The film touches lightly but frankly on these problems. But the movie’s larger point is not about sushi or about sustainability but about the poetry and depth that come from devoting one’s life to the pursuit of perfection in the service of others.