Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Jiro Ono is the world’s most celebrated sushi chef, and has received a three-star rating from the Michelin Guide. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is so popular that you must reserve your spot at least a month in advance, and a meal will cost you at least $300 a person. Oh, and it only seats ten and is located in a Tokyo subway station. But watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, one gets the idea that none of this matters to Jiro. All that matters is sushi, and constantly perfecting his skills at creating it. The accolades and awards, as prestigious as they may be, are just a side effect.
Though he’s been making sushi for nearly 80 years, Jiro demurs when it comes to talk of his mastery. Early on in the movie, Jiro shares this bit of advice:
Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success, and is the key to being regarded honorably.
Even when you consider cultural differences, Jiro’s attitude towards work and vocation seems almost alien to our rapidly changing, upwardly mobile culture in which one can switch jobs relatively easily (economic issues notwithstanding). His adherence to routine, ritual, and tradition — Jiro is a slave of habit, whether he’s boarding the train from the same spot in the station every day or performing the exact same sushi-making moves day after day, year after year — seems bizarre in our culture, which prizes freedom, choice, and individuality. And the level of precision and excellence that he demands of his staff, whether it’s spending years learning the proper technique for preparing washcloths for patrons, determining the proper thickness for a cut of fish, or elaborate rice-preparation routines, can seem overbearing and taskmaster-like.
But even if you’re not particularly fond of sushi (I’m not, myself), it’s nigh-impossible not to be inspired by Jiro’s dedication to his craft. But for Jiro, such dedication is the key to mastery and perfection. Or, as he says, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” And as the film unfolds, and you hear from fellow sushi chefs, restaurant critics, and patrons, you realize that Jiro might just be on to something.
But partway through Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we glimpse the price of such dedication. We’re introduced to Jiro’s two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, who were pressured into joining the family business at young age, even as Jiro admits that his dedication to sushi meant he wasn’t the greatest of fathers. (To the film’s credit, the film explains how Jiro was left fatherless at a young age and forced to fend for himself. One gets the sense that the pressure he places on his sons is in part driven by a desire to ensure that they won’t experience the hardships he did.) Takashi runs his own sushi restaurant, but as the eldest, Yoshikazu continues to work with Jiro. Though he’s generally taciturn, it’s impossible not to see the pressure on Yoshikazu: Japanese custom demands that he, as the eldest, eventually succeed his father, and yet there’s almost no way he’ll ever be able to step out from under his father’s shadow. At least, not in the eyes of critics and patrons.
Watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Jiro and Yoshikazu’s relationship causes me to reflect on my own family history. My father descended from farmers, but he broke rank and went his own way while his father and brothers stayed behind to work in the fields. Similarly, I chose not to join him in his woodworking business and went my own way. I fully expect my children to choose their own paths, and yet, I occasionally find myself wondering what it would be like to have them work alongside me, to pass on to them the skills that I’ve spent years developing.
I know that’s impossible to expect, given our culture’s tendency to encourage us to be individuals who strike out on our own and seek unique paths in life. Having freedom and options is not an inherently bad thing, and yet, the notion of being bound to a tradition larger than your life and its own individual goals and dreams is not without its own merit, I think. Watching Jiro stand next to Yoshikazu in the restaurant, carefully observing the way he slices fish and presses it onto the rice, all the while offering advice and critiques — even seemingly trivial ones — you realize that Jiro might be on to something here, as well.
By the film’s end, I found myself getting somewhat emotional watching Jiro’s dedication to his craft. (And again, I’m not even all that fond of sushi.) Deep down, I think we all want to believe that we have a purpose in life, something that we can lose ourselves in. That desire can certainly take a dark turn, and to its credit, Jiro Dreams of Sushi does explore those consequences in Jiro’s fathering, and his relationship with his own father. But it’s crystal clear from the film’s beginning that Jiro has found his life’s purpose, and it brings him joy, drive, contentment — and no small measure of success and respect. Would that we were all so fortunate as to find a similar sense of purpose, a similar level of fulfillment for our own lives.