The ExPat Returneth

Sunday, March 10, 2013

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI: movie review

In the entertaining documentary JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011) we are ushered into the rarefied world of a sushi master where one perhaps suspects zen-like secrets of perfect sushi preparation will be conveyed in hushed tones and somber declarations. What we get is a portrait of a very typical Japanese man devoted to the old virtues of hard work, perfection, and simplicity.

Jiro Ono began working when he was 7 because he had to. His parents basically abdicated responsibility to support him and so he was forced into the world of work where he has remained to this day at the ripe old age of 85. He loves work so much he hates holidays and would rather be at his little sushi shop near a Tokyo subway station than anywhere else, including and especially his home, it seems.

And yet he has a decent, if somewhat distant, relationship with his two sons, who have both followed him into the sushi business. But in this as in so many other ways he is a typical Japanese working man, if more of the old school than the current generation.

His work is his life and it is what defines him, period. His devotion to his craft is admirable and, at the same time, ordinary in its Japanese-ness. He completely eschews the lofty pretensions and indulgent idiosyncrasies of the modern chef-cum-celebrity. He just loves making sushi and thinks incessantly of how to improve his product and how it is consumed (even to the point of dreaming about it).

Of course there is ample coverage on how he carefully selects fish and other ocean creatures, his rice, and how all of this is prepared. Most of the work is now done by his older son or his staff, but he still acts as a sort of master quality control engineer. One of my favorite tidbits was how he prepares octopus, which is notoriously rubbery. He solves that deficiency by having some poor apprentice knead and knurl the octopus for at least 45 minutes, by hand. My fingers cramped at the thought but my mind marveled at the elegant, if tedious, solution to the problem.

The heart of the story for this man devoted to work is the relationship with his sons, especially his eldest, who has the heavy burden of taking over for Jiro after he leaves the scene. Their relationship is rooted in the business, but in Japan this affords them more time together than is typical. And they really seem to enjoy being with each other, exhibiting a comfortable ease with one another even as they know that the older son will be hard-pressed to successfully maintain his father's legacy.

I really enjoyed seeing the mundane aspects of Japanese everyday life and culture as experienced in Jiro's restaurant and was inspired by his commitment to perfection, quality, and giving joy to his customers.  I hope you enjoy it, too.

Trey Hoffman 
After getting his M.A. in Japanese Art History, Trey Hoffman eschewed university life for Japanese business. He's worked for four Japanese companies in the U.S.; for a U.S. state office in Japan; and for a Japanese City Hall in the JET program. A father and husband, Trey enjoys teaching his kids about other cultures and introducing them to bizarre foods.

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