"Always strive to master your craft." The closing words of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which opens today at the Magnolia and Angelika Theaters, would make sound advice for any trade. But thrust upon the shokunin, the master sushi chef, they invoke a certain umami for the soul that's as inspiring as it is maddening.
Sure, there's something to be learned from someone as devoted to his craft as Jiro Ono, the man behind Sukiyabashi Jiro, the only sushi restaurant in the world to earn three Michelin stars. But then there's that nagging self-doubt that tells you unequivocally, no matter what your trade, you'll never measure up. Not to Jiro's standards.
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The level of dedication and care shown by his staff is unprecedented. One sequence in the movie shows the staff completing menial tasks in fast-forward, but even at an accelerated clip they appear smooth, controlled and polished. From rice preparation to ingredient procurement to seating arrangement to presentation, every aspect of the dining experience is perfected, and David Gelb's film captures that attention to detail almost as perfectly.
At the markets, and back at the tiny 10-seat basement restaurant in Tokyo, the film captures the demise of a halibut, eels and other fish, but there's reverence in the grisly images. Jiro's cooks treat each and every ingredient prep like a ritual, and an image repeated throughout the film -- the instant a piece is presented to a customer -- almost personifies the sushi. It's as if the fish spent its entire life swimming through the sea waiting for the precise moment when it comes to rest and settles on the glossy pitch of the serving plate. It was always on its way here.
Another sequence captures the emotions of a chef who worked at Sukiyabashi Jiro for 10 years before he was allowed to learn the egg sushi. It took more than 200 attempts over many months to create a perfect golden square that met Jiro's expectations. When Jiro finally approved the disciple's work, the young cook wept. Finally, he was a shokunin, too.
At 85, the acclaimed Jiro has made sushi for more than 70 years, devoting every service to constantly improving his art. "I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top. ... But no one knows where the top is!" Jiro says of this relentless pursuit. It's inspiring, sure, but also a little depressing, to watch your finest sushi experience reduced to mere commodity.