Book Review: How to Be a WomanAugust 17, 2012
Book Review: NadaAugust 31, 2012
On its surface, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master sushi chef whose tiny ten-seat restaurant—located underground, in a Tokyo subway station—is remarkable enough to earn it three Michelin stars from the famed French restaurant guide. But, at its heart, it is a movie about a man striving each day to achieve a Platonic ideal, knowing full well that he will never attain it. Chef Jiro is the physical embodiment of “life is the journey, not the destination.”
With this jewel of a film, director David Gelb proves that a quiet little tale about one man’s day-to-day existence can be more compelling than a passel of superheroes engaged in 20 different car chases at once. Gelb’s portrait of the man shows us the universe in a grain of sand—or in this case, several grains of cooked rice topped with a properly sliced piece of akami (lean tuna) slicked by a shoyu-dipped brush. I defy anyone to leave this film without an appreciation for the complexities of seemingly “simple” tasks—and a powerful craving for sushi. Jiro reminds us that great skill comes from repetition and focus, and even people who have an innate talent for their life’s art must struggle constantly to perfect it.
There is an air of wistfulness that hangs over the whole enterprise, as we learn that Jiro’s apprenticeship model has fallen out of favor in Japan, one of the places where it has endured the longest. You can see the resignation in the slightly stooped shoulders of Jiro’s eldest son, who will someday take over the restaurant. When he talks about past apprentices who only lasted on the job for a week, or even a day, you realize that no matter how well this man carries on his father’s traditions, something powerful will be lost when Jiro and his generation of artisans are gone. (Both men also lament the state of the world’s fisheries, and how modern techniques have decimated the populations of once-abundant species.)
For me, the great power of this movie lies in the fact that it also let’s you glimpse the other side: the monotony of the work and of chef Jiro’s life, a man who doesn’t care for vacation and only seems happy when he is standing behind his sushi bar. A man for whom the pursuit of his craft is all-consuming. Even as I admired his dedication, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility about the whole thing. In the end, does a human life really come down to how well you’ve toasted the nori for the thousandth time? I do not say this to in any way diminish him or what he has achieved, but it definitely got me thinking about how small an individual’s existence is in the grand scheme of things. It’s a humbling thought.
Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that Jiro’s circumscribed striving is the very thing that gives his life meaning. Each hour he spends on his work is a creative act, one in which he is dreaming of a future where he can continually improve. This film is about recognizing the value and beauty in the grain-of-sand reality that is humanity, and persevering in the face of it all. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think of a quote my dear friend Helena often cites: “Even if I were certain that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.”