Once you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s unlikely you’ll settle for anything less than tasting raw fish delicacies five seconds after preparation by the most seasoned master you can find within driving distance. Director David Gelb’s lifelong fascination with sushi stems from a lifetime of visits to Japan, and his documentary is the result of a fact-finding mission with a Tokyo food critic that led to the kitchen of 85-year old Sukiyabashi Jiro. Located in a subway station, it seats 10 patrons at a bar and only takes reservations a month in advance.
The film’s subject almost seems absurd at first, until the first interlude of sushi preparation swings the film in a mesmerizing direction. Gelb, an understudy to Fernando Meirelles, captures Jiro and his staff — including 50-year-old eldest son Yoshikazu — assembling every kind of sushi imaginable as the story of the shokunin (esteemed master craftsman) is told. Jiro is a stern taskmaster who is unrelenting in his devotion to excellence, and expects the same from everyone around him. “Let’s just say I don’t sleep with my feet in his direction,” says a restaurateur who still considers Jiro his boss.
Anyone who considers life a continuous journey of perfecting their art, craft or profession can draw inspiration from Jiro. Gelb also provides an education on the different kinds of sushi, the purveyors of premium fish and rice, and overfishing. But it’s his lyrical, lovingly photographed scenes of preparation — combined with the imparting of Jiro’s work ethic and philosophy — that elevates the documentary to a work of art. Gelb also generates pathos by conveying the odds against Yoshikazu being able to step out of his father’s shadow and approach Jiro’s level of perfection, but the narrative thread provides the uplifting ending the director needed to make a near-perfect film.