Before you go to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi -- which you absolutely should, and at your earliest convenience before it leaves town on April 22 -- know one thing: This is not a movie about sushi.
One could be forgiven for thinking that it is. After all, there are roughly 100 shots -- many of them verging on pornographic -- of deftly constructednigiri sighing down onto a plate, the sushi itself the focus of a lens with such a narrow depth of field that it makes the edges blur out into something ethereal and dreamlike.
There are similarly duplicated shots of Jiro Ono's weathered 85-year-old hands making and remaking these bites for enthralled audiences at his 10-seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, all of it scored by the woozy strains of Philip Glass's famous symphonic cycle. Metamorphosis has never met a better match for its unsettling diatonic harmonies than Jiro Dreams of Sushi's story of the underlying tensions that come with becoming the best at something in the entire world.
And at the heart of it, that's what Jiro is about: mastering something. The idea that you're witnessing the artistry of a living master. The master of what almost doesn't matter -- only the fact that he mastered something. Ono's impeccable sushi nearly takes a backseat to the awe that he inspires in people purely for choosing a job and devoting his entire life to that one task.
For Ono, that task just happens to be sushi. And this shokunin inspires and terrifies not because of how perfect his sushi rice is nor how well-sliced his fish, but because of his intense concentration and dedication.
"The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people," wrote author Toshio Odate in, of all books, Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use. "This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin's responsibility is to fulfill the requirement."
Odate was writing about a woodworking shokunin, but he could have just as easily been writing about a sushi shokunin like Ono. Ono worries, as do his two sons, that their industry has been responsible for the wide-scale depletion of certain fisheries, most notably the bluefin tuna population. Their passion for their craft has been diluted and spread across the entire world; sushi is now available in supermarkets and convenience stores, Ono's sons despair at one point.
And it's not that they or their father are interested in being elitist about their craft, despite Ono's three Michelin stars (he remains both the oldest chef and the only sushi chef to receive three stars). For them, it's only about hard work and effort -- elements, along with passion, that are missing at most sushi restaurants today.
It's these things that make Ono's restaurant arguably the most successful in its field. That, and constantly working to procure the best and freshest products from vendors that are equally devoted to their trades. Even Ono's rice vendor won't sell to anyone else -- not even the Grand Hyatt hotel, the vendor proudly proclaims in one scene -- because no one else will give his rice the attention that Ono and his team do.
Ono's team is composed of apprentices, some of whom apprentice for their master until they are 60 years old, and his two sons. The youngest has started a little sister restaurant to his father's, except with lower prices (as Ono himself demands a higher price merely by his presence in the restaurant) and a more relaxed atmosphere. The eldest son remains in his father's shadow at the flagship subway station restaurant, despite making the very sushi that brought the restaurant several of its Michelin stars.
The strain between these three men contrasted with the palpable love shared between all of them is almost painful to watch at times, and it's then that Jiro takes on yet another dimension: the struggle of children to live up to -- and possibly never exceed -- their own parents' successes and expectations. That is a story that transcends sushi as well, as much of the world is experiencing the first generations who will never outperform their fathers; indeed, many predict that the Baby Boomers, the Gen Xers and the Millennials will all do worse than their parents.
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But at its heart, Jiro is a story meant to demonstrate how to live one's life with honor. That honor will more often than not be hard-won and stress-inducing, but it provides you with purpose and dignity. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone mimicking Ono's level of devotion here, which makes his story that much more poignant. Where is our purpose and dignity these days? Where have our sushi masters gone?
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is playing at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through Sunday, April 22. Tickets are $6 for members, $7 for non-members.