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Sasha dreams of a better sushi documentary
I become angry at a praised piece of media
I’m going to get a little specific here. We’re going to talk about how a documentary made 12 years ago pissed me off. I hope that you find this more exciting than, well, watching a documentary. They are often duller than other films. We often watch them like we eat kale: for edification, and to signal our good taste. So they should at least be informative. Conversely, the greatest sin, for a documentary, is to not only fail to inform, but to actually mislead us, to make our picture of the world less accurate. The highly decorated Jiro Dreams of Sushi commits this sin.
It tells an inspiring story. Here is a man of humble birth, superhumanly ambitious and detail-oriented, who becomes the single best sushi chef in Japan, through sheer determination. With the seriousness of a sniper on a besieged fortification, he defends his cuisine against any imperfection, imposing standards that others would consider unrealistic. His apprentices need to work for decades before they can possibly match his abilities, burning their hands on hot towels, fretting over rice, and botching egg sushi hundreds of times before they finally get the knack.
Sure, it’s a little dull at times. We get a lot of montages instead of plot. Much work is done by a Philip Glass soundtrack accompanying food porn close-ups of atom-splitting Japanese knives gliding through expensive tuna. The pacing is awkward—the meat of the film is over in the first half hour, and then we ramble through elaborations, awkwardly stumble into a brief spurt of environmentalism, and then see a visit with Jiro’s old friends which doesn’t reveal much. On the other hand, it is genuinely cool to see his working methods—how he selects the fish, how the menu is constructed. We have a rewarding glimpse into the life of the finest sushi artisan in Japan!
But wait. Is that true? Is he really at an entirely different level from the rest? I grew skeptical of the narration at a certain point. Some characters in the film, especially a food writer who is constantly riding Jiro’s dick, make constant statements to the effect that other chefs simply aren’t as interested in quality, tradition, and perfection. Nobody else knows how to make the rice that they do, the bumpkins down at the Park Hyatt don’t have the stamina or knowledge. Unlike others, Jiro and his team achieve unbelievable depth of flavor with simple ingredients—there is nobody at his level.
When I first watched this movie, a decade ago, I was a little more gullible, so I didn’t question this. However, I watched it again this week in our hotel room in Tokyo, and, well, I couldn’t help but notice that Japan didn’t exactly seem like a country of complacent, easygoing cooks. Whether you’re eating at a cozy little omelette spot or a high-end sushi joint here, almost everybody is bent on impeccable execution. We were lucky enough to have an absolutely lovely omakase meal at this place, and the chef was more visibly concerned about our food some mothers are about their children. When he was making the nigiri, he moved like a sleight of hand artist, and while we ate, he watched us like a CCTV camera. Could it really be true that nobody cares as much as Jiro? Wouldn’t that be a little surprising, in a country of 125 million?
A little googling revealed that the opinion on the ground in Tokyo is… somewhat different than the one implied by the film. Diners do praise Jiro’s restaurant—it’s now been mostly taken over by his son, but it’s apparently still top-tier. However, that top tier is quite populated. On famously discerning Japanese food website Tabelog, Jiro’s isn’t in the top 50 highest-rated sushi places in Tokyo. What sets Jiro’s place apart is a different style, rather than a different level of execution: his sushi is very traditional and quite vinegar-forward. Some people prefer this, others don’t; some diners opine that the high level of acid mars the fish.
Additionally, Jiro’s place delivers an unusually matter-of-fact experience. The menu is set, and you get a piece of sushi slammed down as soon as you’ve finished the last one—it’s often over in 30 minutes, and there’s little talking, no wine pairing, no appetizers, no dessert. This is certainly a choice. But not one, I have to admit, that I fully understand. The aforementioned omakase we enjoyed was better for a delicious dessert, wine pairings that enhanced the food, and more gradual service, and I would’ve been pissed if it were over faster than an episode of Law & Order. Does the minimal experience indicate more seriousness about the sushi? Or is it merely puritanism?
I don’t know. I wish I did. There is a much more illuminating documentary that could’ve been made here—a more nuanced look at Jiro’s approach. We could’ve gotten the answers to questions like: what are tricks of the trade that other chefs employ, that Jiro doesn’t? How is Jiro’s viewed by the general mass of Japanese dining cognoscenti? From such a documentary, we might’ve come away still admiring Jiro, but with a more realistic view of what he represents, and greater appreciation of the massive pool of culinary talent in Japan.
But, you might reply, Jiro received three Michelin stars, earlier than any other sushi place—surely, this indicates unique quality. Well, that probably has more to do with social connections than anything else. One early vocal fan of Jiro was renowned chef Joël Robuchon, who, as a one-time holder of 31 Michelin stars, presumably had some influence.
Before coming to Japan, I received the following advice: don’t pay attention to Michelin stars or English reviews in general. Just go where the locals go, to any place that has a line outside, or is recommended by people on the ground. To the extent that I have followed this advice, I’ve eaten well, and to the extent that I’ve defied it, I have eaten less well.
After the film’s perspective fell apart upon cursory investigation, I was left wondering why it was made this way. I have two theories. The first is that documentarian David Gelb was so flattered by the access, and so impressed by Jiro, that he didn’t ask hard questions. This is a mistake I made a few times as a young reporter—being too enamored of my subject to be critical—and it is an easy mistake to make. The second is that the director, instead of telling the complex truth, went for a neat, satisfying story: the last samurai of sushi, the still point of the turning fishy world, whose skill will never be bested by another.
I’d be honored to eat at Jiro’s. I bet it would rock me. But I’d be just as honored to eat at about fifty other sushi joints.
Photo credit goes to Daido Moriyama.
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