Fishy Business: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi Reviewed

Patrick Smith enjoys David Gelb's profile of Tokyo sushi master Jiro Ono, which goes on limited theatrical release across the UK today

Influential British film theorist Colin McArthur once highlighted a prevalent stylistic tendency within the work of revered French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Noting Melville’s consistent focus on human work and labour, through the alternating use of long takes and close-ups, McArthur suggested Melville had forged a "cinema of process… [where] the detailed perusal of actions and objects raises the valency of the process."

David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a work that is certainly indebted to Melville’s mode of filmmaking. The documentary focuses on the daily ebb and flow of work in Sukiyabashi Jiro: a minuscule, ten-seat, three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in the Ginza district of Chuo, Tokyo. The place is run by father and son pair Jiro Ono and Yoshikazu Ono. Early on Gelb sets aside a significant portion of time to examine the daily routine that these men, young and old, adhere to – selecting, measuring, weighing, massaging, indeed caring for the finest cuts of fish that can be sourced.

In these early sequences the director is keen to highlight the intensely exacting standards that Jiro demands of his team, and here he uses the long take/close-up strategy to focus on the labour invested in the pursuit of perfection. When Yoshikazu travels to the local fish market Gelb uses longer takes to great effect, highlighting how laborious finding the right cut of fish can be. When we move onto the preparation of the sushi however, Gelb utilises some great close-up work to propound the delicacy and dexterity required in this line of work.

If the film is perhaps stylistically one part Melville, through its focus on the processes of labour, thematically it has a different cinematic connection. Here we have a film about one Japanese master – Jiro – that is significantly indebted to another – Yasujirō Ozu. Alongside the narrative that focuses on Jiro and his team’s quietly draining pursuit of perfection there is another story that unfolds, revolving around the generational differences between the father and son team at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Never pushing their discord too much to the fore, Gelb lets this second narrative sit towards the back of the doc, touching on Jiro’s natural ability versus the learned techniques of his son, and the latter’s fear of one day taking over the restaurant. Always looming, though never fully exposed, Gelb maintains a respectful detachment from such personal family matters. Such a melancholic examination of the relation and separation, discord and harmony, between different generations within Japan was a central preoccupation within Ozu’s filmmaking.

The true power of Ozu’s examinations came from the fact that he did not make disharmony an explicit part of his narrative. For example, the mistreatment of the elders within Tokyo Story is made manifest largely through gazes and character movement, rather than any overt confrontations. It is a testament to Gelb’s filmmaking that he has subtly highlighted a very similar rift in a very similar manner in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And by letting such large-scale issues quietly sit at the back, such works force us as viewers to think long and hard post-credits. However Gelb’s film is not all about looking backwards, and the use of a DLSR camera in combination with a macro lens provides shots that are markedly 21st century. Glossy and bright, this is the way sushi was always meant to be seen.

With Jiro Dreams of Sushi Gelb has crafted a film that revels in the intricacies and concomitant pleasures of sushi making, though always hovering in the background is a sense that one day the reins of power will have to change.

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