A sushi dream becomes a US film reality

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Jiro Ono in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ (Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

When film maker David Gelb decided to make a movie about the best sushi in the world he started by approaching Tokyo food writer Masahiro Yamamota. He asked the writer which eateries he needed to visit.

“And he told me that he only had one sushi restaurant that I needed to go to,’ Geld told me recently from New York.

It was the restaurant run by Jiro Ono, in a tiny spot tucked away beside a subway station. Gelb had heard of the place. After all it does have three of Michelin’s coveted stars.

He’s also heard of the septuagenarian owner who is a living legend.

“Chefs from all over the world revere him and travel to his restaurant just to try the purest most delicious sushi,” said Gelb.

However he was not prepared for the experience of eating there. He says he was absolutely blown away.

“The sushi was both beautiful to behold and absolutely delicious to eat,” he said.

He asked Jiro-san as he calls him if he could make a film about how he does what he does. It was a bold move, as Jiro is known for being a no-nonsense kind of guy who is only interested in improving his craft.

Amazingly he agreed, and the result is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” a remarkable 90 minute documentary opening in Minnesota this weekend.

“I think that Jiro was into the idea that he would be able to tell his story from his perspective and be able to show sushi from his perspective,” said Gelb.

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David Gelb in a Tokyo fish market (Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

“Sushi is very misunderstood,” Gelb continued. “A lot of people think it is just fish and rice. What I hope the film does is that it shows the amount of thought and effort that goes into not only selecting the fish but preparing the fish so it can be in it’s most delicious state at the moment of service.”

Jiro only buys the best and freshest fish, and then makes sure it is prepared perfectly. For instance any octopus coming into the restaurant gets a 45 minute kneading from one of his apprentices.

The same thought and preparation goes into making the rice which is bought from a special dealer and then cooked in a very specific way. The temperature of the rice and the fish are both monitored carefully so they will be served in the best possible way.

“And then the rice and the fish are paired together specifically in order to bring out the flavor of the fish,” said Gelb. “So what appears to be simple requires a vast amount of work and Jiro has been working on these balances for 60 years.”

Now Gelb faced the challenge of trying to convey those sensual delights in a medium which allows for no sense of taste or smell.

He says he shot the food using a very limited depth of field, which allows the eye to linger on the most succulent spots in each piece of sushi. They are incredibly beautiful, so much so one critic referred to Gelb’s movie as “food porn,” which makes him laugh.

“Well I find that flattering,” he said. “Because again if you are able to take a visual image and create a reaction in an audience member that makes them very, very hungry, I think that’s a successful moment.”

But Gelb says in a way the eye-catching food food is just a means to an end for him

“I think the movie is more than food porn, but there is food porn in it surely. You can consider the food porn to be sort of like the action scenes in a thriller but there is still a human story that carries it through and gives a context to the food porn so it is meaningful.”

That is the story of how Jiro developed his skills and his reputation through incredible hard work, and how he has drilled his staff, including his two sons on the art of sushi making.

An important part of the films is the fact that Jiro is well past retirement age, and his oldest son Yoshikazu, now in his fifties and a sushi master himself, has had to live in his shadow for decades. Japanese tradition decrees that he will take over the business, but no-one, even Jiro, knows when that might be.

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Jiro at work with his son Yoshikazu (Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.)

Gelb says he and his crew bent themselves to Jiro’s philosophy of hard work in making the film. He shot 60 hours of video during a visit to Japan, and then brought it back to the US to edit. He calls it a master class in the philosophy of hard work. First they had a team of experts translate every second of video they had. Then they began cutting.

“We were building and taking the film apart and then rebuilding it over and over again all just to make it a little bit better and just to mean a little bit more,” Gelb said.

After eight months they were in good shape with just a few holes to fill. Gelb returned to Japan to shoot the extra material. It would be 30 hours at most he thought. He says it would have been much easier if the footage he shot could have fit in easily to the holes, but as is often the case in documentary making, it didn’t.

“So what was originally meant to be 30 hours of targeted footage became another 60 hours of story, and so the movie completely transformed again when I brought this material back,” Gelb said. He can kind of laugh about it now, but he says his editing crew were not happy on his return.

But they got the job done, and “Jiro Dream of Sushi” has been drawing raves wherever its been shown.

“But what I was most surprised by was how much people who don’t eat sushi, or don’t even like sushi have still enjoyed the film,” said Gelb. “I think that’s the greatest compliment we have received because it has transcended the subject.”

And perhaps most gratifying of all to Gelb is Jiro Ono likes the film.

” I wanted to make sure that Jiro would still be around to see it and fortunately he is and he is still working every day as hard as he can. He works at the restaurant 6 days a week doing lunch and dinner.”

Not only making the best sushi in the world, but striving to make it even better.

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