There’s nothing fishy about docu “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — apart from the fish itself, that is. An appetizing portrait of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, the oldest chef to win three Michelin stars (for his 10-seater, sushi-only Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro), pic is as clean and simple as one of its subject’s creations. The worst that could be said of helmer David Gelb’s feature debut is that it’s perhaps a little over-garnished with backstory about Ono’s relationship with his two sons, and is slightly repetitive. That said, this intrinsically compelling hymn to craftsmanship and taste in every sense should cleanse palates at further fests.
Ono recounts his particularly brutal childhood, then relates how he found his mission in life when he apprenticed at a very young age in the restaurant trade. Entirely — one might say monomaniacally — devoted to his craft, he built up a world-class reputation at his tiny sushi bar through dedication to quality, consistency and subtle innovation. In interviews with offscreen helmer Gelb, Ono explains he expects nothing less than perfection from his staff, who clearly fear and respect him in equal measure.
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Also on the company payroll are Ono’s two sons, 50-year-old Yoshikazu, who is second-in-command at the flagship restaurant, and younger brother Takashi, who runs the company’s second eatery in another part of town. Destined all his life to take over from his father, Yoshikazu comes across as stoic but a little cowed by his father’s legacy, feeling that unless he’s twice as good as his dad, he’ll always be considered, unfairly, the old man’s inferior. Restaurant critic Yamamoto Masuhiro points out, however, that it was actually Yoshikazu who made sushi for the Michelin inspectors when they dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro, not that Dad will ever give his son any of the credit for the resulting stars.
Gelb later widens his focus to cover the men at the fish market who sell their produce on to the restaurant. Highly specialized to deal only in, say, tuna or shrimp, these vendors are every bit as passionate about what they do as Ono is. Toward the end, some interesting points are made about how many species have now been fished out of existence due to the rising popularity of sushi — once a treat for the rich, and now a worldwide staple.
Although a few visual effects are deployed to create a time-lapse tableau of a busy kitchen at work, lensing is generally unfussily direct. Pic is frequently, perhaps too often, punctuated by mouthwatering closeups of Jiro and Yoshikazu’s creations, which they lay on a plate for diners one by one, like jewelers laying out engagement rings on velvet, making the film an agony to watch on an empty stomach. Pace is a little draggy despite the short 81-minute running time.