Opening in limited release this week from Magnolia Films, food-porn documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi chronicles the life, career, and kitchen habits of renowned Japanese food artisan Jiro Ono. The film’s narrative is a little too thin to support its feature-length runtime, but its beautiful editing and cinematography are guaranteed to make you leave the theater wickedly craving some fresh Hamachi.
Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old sushi chef living in Tokyo, where his world-renowned restaurant is so ridiculously famous and popular that booking a seat requires reservations over a month in advance. Jiro has been making sushi since his early twenties, and he’s the oldest chef in the world ever to receive a three-star Michelin rating – as one food critic explains, that means the food at Jiro’s restaurant is so good that it’s worth traveling to Japan from a different country just to eat there. The film explores Jiro’s personal history and philosophies about sushi, touches on his concerns about eventually passing the torch to his oldest son Yoshikazu,once Jiro himself is forced to retire, and ventures briefly outside the sushi restaurant to illustrate the vast network of individuals who contribute to Jiro’s success, from fish suppliers to “rice experts.”
Jiro is intentionally visually seductive, and it does a brilliant job cultivating a hypnotic atmosphere of fetishistic longing for food. The relentless, sexy close-ups of tuna filets, egg batter, steamed rice, and roasted sheets of dried seaweed are the most enjoyable part of the movie, and if the filmmakers had just gone balls-out and committed to a more boldly free-associative visual approach, Jiro might actually have been a better film. The narrative is so unfocused, however, that the exposition starts to feel like a rude distraction from the visuals, making the movie seem padded and overlong. Lacking a more simplified story structure, Jiro could have maybe been successfully re-cut as a short, but that seems like a waste, considering how beautifully photographed everything is. Really, it just needed less story, or possibly a richer thematic focus to balance it out.
Despite a general, annoying sense of diffusion in the narrative (the film spends a lot of time shuffling aimlessly between vague concerns about status and reputation, uniform technical details about sushi-making, and unrelated episodes from Jiro’s childhood), plus an occasional tendency to lapse into broad sentimentality, the film’s truly accomplished visual elements make Jiro definitely worthy of at least one viewing. Ono is a captivating subject, and the philosophies he espouses about creative dedication and the fusion of work with pleasure are articulated beautifully in the contrast between the time and complexity of the preparation process, and the simplicity of a finished piece of sushi. Just make sure you have some extra cash in your pocket, and a nearby, late-night sushi bar bookmarked in your iPhone, so you can go satiate your unholy lust for O-Toro once the movie is ended.