Tokyo sushi master Jiro Ono operates a tiny 10-seat restaurant where he turns vinegared rice and sliced fish into world-class culinary art. It's more difficult to get reservations at his three-star Michelin bar than almost anywhere else. A meal there, 20 pieces of sushi individually served, lasts 15 minutes (eaten swiftly before the rice cools past peak deliciousness) and costs $300. As David Gelb's entrancing documentary shows, Jiro's Zen focus and relentless perfectionism make connoisseurs from around the world line up for the experience. By the time this graceful film is over you understand why Japan has declared the bald, bespectacled Jiro a national treasure. Even if you've never tasted sushi, the man's singleness of purpose will inspire you.
"In dreams I have grand visions of sushi," Jiro says, and pursuing those dreams is his single-minded passion. After a hardscrabble childhood, he apprenticed at a sushi shop at age 9 and has been at the same job for 76 years. Work and the economic security and prestige that flow from it became as important to him as life itself. His imperturbable smile can be masklike; at times he seems to be tamping down old demons as he plows through a work routine that would sap many men half his age.
The camera follows him through the teeming Tsukiji fish market, where only the finest specimens of seafood are offered for his inspection. His techniques are painstaking: Apprentices massage octopus by hand for 40 minutes to bring it to the ideal texture and release its flavor. No detail is beyond his dedication. Smaller customers receive smaller morsels so everyone in the party finishes at once. Left-handers get special seating and service.
The workers practice for years to meet their boss' lofty standards, fanning sheets of nori seaweed over a coal fire to toast them just so. One chef made the restaurant's sweet omelet 200 times. Finally the day came when Jiro pronounced the dish good enough. The apprentice wept with relief.
Gelb's camera lingers lovingly on the oblongs of rice and glistening fish, often photographing them in shallow depth of field like so many gemstones on dainty lacquer trays. The food montages are scored to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach. Gelb's film is also observant of the familial tensions between the proprietor and his two middle-aged sons, both sushi chefs. Takashi, the younger, runs a satellite restaurant in a swanky district. Yoshikazu, the elder, anticipates the day when the inevitable happens and he must take over his father's bar. The demanding Jiro mildly observes that he has a lot of learning to do first.