When, a few days ago, Rod mentioned Jiro Dreams of Sushi I remembered that I had been meaning to watch it. So I did. And it’s a really good film.
The filmmakers’ interest is clearly focused on the family relationships: What kind of father was Jiro to the sons who work for him? How do they feel about having such an illustrious father? When he finally retires, or — more likely — dies, how will they carry on? (Oddly, though, we do not even learn whether Jiro’s wife is alive, or, if she is, whether she is the mother of his sons. At one point Jiro says that if he didn’t go to work every day he would just be underfoot at home, but we don’t learn whose foot he would be under.)
However, me being me, I was more interested in the food and didn’t learn nearly enough about that to suit me. There’s a brief passage where Jiro and his preferred rice merchant discuss the importance of taking immense care to prepare the rice properly — but how do they prepare it? We’re never told. Perhaps the details are trade secrets, but it would be nice to learn at least some of the general guidelines. We watch octopus simmering — but in what? A broth of some kind? Jiro finishes each piece of sushi that he prepares by brushing it neatly and evenly with oil — but what kind of oil? And from whom does he procure it? (Update: Gavin Craig on Twitter thinks it’s soy sauce, which of course makes sense, but I thought it was too light a color and oily a texture for that. But I know nothing.)
More generally, while we’re told that Jiro is the most celebrated sushi chef in the world, we don’t get a really clear picture of what separates him from everyone else. Judging just from the film, and from my rather limited experience of sushi, I’d say that he prepares highly traditional sushi but does so with an unmatched level of attention to every detail of purchase, preparation, and service. That is, Jiro appears to be no innovator, but rather a profoundly devoted servant of the tradition he has inherited.
And yet he speaks at one point of having dreams — thus the title of the film — in which he comes up with new sushi dishes. So which is it? Is Jiro an innovative genius blazing new trails in sushi creation? Or does he, in classic Japanese fashion, devote himself to mastering, with an unexcelled devotion, a Way of food preparation that has been canonical for many many years? This inquiring mind wants to know.