If we ever needed more proof to confirm that Japanese cuisine is among the most popular and sought after culinary traditions, David Gelb's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi might have provided the final consecration. The documentary focuses on sushi, which we, in the United States, can find in all sorts of establishments, from delis to bars, where the morsels of raw fish and rice are transported to patrons on little conveyor belts. Yet Jiro Ono's legendary 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, hails from a completely different universe. The seemingly unassuming Tokyo eatery, located underground in a subway station and with no restrooms on premises, focuses exclusively -- at times we'd feel like saying almost maniacally -- on sushi. The 85-year-old Jiro and one of his sons have taken this specialty to levels of refinement and perfection that have gained them three Michelin stars and the adoration of food critics and affluent patrons. As the meal can cost around $300.00 per person, not everybody can afford to sit in the coveted spots at the counter and observe the sushi masters do their magic before their eyes.
The documentary is absolutely enjoyable. Jiro, his two sons, his apprentices, and the colorful ensemble of food vendors that sell rice and fish to the restaurant, manage to capture our attention for the full 80 minutes, much of which is shots of the actual food. You end up mesmerized by the sushi preparation, the supple movements that assemble it almost magically, the glistening textures of eels, shrimp, and fat tuna, the vapors of the kitchen, the whiffs of smoke from the burning hay that lightly grills the fish. In other words, all the trappings of the popular visual style that is now often referred to as "food porn." We might not be fully aware, but we have enjoyed it in numerous movies and many a TV show. Not to mention food commercials and printed advertising.
The filmmaker, clearly passionate about his subject, has fully embraced the foodie aesthetics, adopting its language and principles. Moviegoers, who we can safely assume are interested in food and the surrounding culture, cannot but appreciate the exceptionality of the artisan's skills, honed by decades of absolute, almost mystical dedication. As frustrating as it is, myriad attempts and tons of imperfect food pave the way to mastery. A recognizable and mildly exotic version of Japanese culture is proposed to Western viewers, who are likely to have some inkling about the hardships of samurai training and their code of conduct, echoed by the sushi masters' ability to brandish very sharp knives. The mindless repetition of gestures and movements that is supposed to lead to perfection can easily take us back to Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi and his wax on, wax off technique.
We are constantly reminded of the chef's uniqueness and the sublime quality of his food by a renowned Japanese food critic. He plays the all-important role of the insider, implicitly allowing viewers to feel "in the know" by sharing his expertise and his cultural capital. Moreover, he pledges the sushi's authenticity, one of the most crucial and controversial values in contemporary food culture. We want to be reassured we are getting the real thing, even if such a thing does not -- and cannot -- exist. The master's work is represented as the epitome of taste and refinement, which is all the more exciting because the sushi he serves would come across as simple and ordinary to the untrained eyes of the non-expert. We justly feel our own comprehension of the art of sushi increasing by the minute, providing us with invaluable ammunition to employ in future dinners and outings on the town.
At the same time, the Japanese food critic makes sure to frame the meal in terms that are accessible to educated Westerners: He compares it to a concerto, aptly describing its various phases with expression such as cadenza and other musical terms. I suspect that he wanted to show his knowledge of the subtleties of our own culture too. The documentary neither throws us in a completely unknown world, nor challenges our sense of culinary competence, but rather soothes us by providing a better understanding of an already familiar aspect of Japanese cuisine. The enclosed environment, briefly abandoned for a cursory visit to the dazzling Tsukiji fish market, allows us to approach this fascinating world on our own terms. No need to deal with the complexities of Japanese culinary culture lurking outside the restaurant. Unless you have to use the restrooms, that is...
For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.