(2011)4.5Perry SeibertImagine what it would be like to be the best in the world at something. Comprehend the devotion it takes to be recognized as the single greatest practitioner of a certain skill. That doesn't happen by luck, or just innate skill. It requires an almost monastic devotion to your chosen field. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an enthralling look at one person who has made the sacrifices necessary to be the best of the best.
David Gelb's debut feature focuses on Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny restaurant -- there are no bathrooms -- that can seat only ten people at a time and serves only sushi. No appetizers, no desserts, just sushi. People spend a minimum of $300 for a meal that lasts less than 30 minutes, and they walk away happy. Internationally recognized as one of the world's greatest sushi chefs, Jiro has focused on his craft at the expense of almost everything else in his life.
At his side is his eldest son Yoshikazu, who is Jiro's loyal second-in-command. Yoshikazu has absorbed all of his father's wisdom and is eager to follow tradition and run the family business, but standing in his way is Jiro himself -- still unable to fathom not doing what he does every single day of his life.
Gelb does a spectacular job of presenting Jiro's deep knowledge and skill. We see him go to the market to smell the fresh fish and learn how he networks with fish providers who share his own undiluted pursuit of perfection. As our admiration for Jiro grows, we feel the frustrations of Yoshikazu, although he's too obedient of a son to express them. When we meet Yoshikazu's younger brother, who has left to start his own very successful, though not as beloved, sushi eatery, we expect a fiery sibling rivalry. However, these two men are so very much of their culture, and so very much their father's sons, that any pain and recrimination remains deeply buried.
As if this weren't enough material for a fascinating movie, Gelb delivers gorgeous, slow-motion shots of sushi being prepared -- a brush gliding a thin layer of oil atop a perfectly constructed roll -- that make you wish you could taste the screen. It's almost like 3D for foodies.
At one point we learn about the Japanese word umami. It denotes the feeling of experiencing something so overpoweringly wonderful that you reflexively say "aaaaaahhhhhhhh." In a scant 82 minutes, Gelb paints an indelible portrait of a towering man, reveals the layers in his fascinating family, and creates an ode to one of the world's great styles of food. The end result isn't just one of the best films of 2012, documentary or fiction, but a movie worthy of Jiro himself. It's bursting with umami.