Film review: 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'

When I first saw the trailer for “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” I was sorely tempted to leave the theater, make a beeline for Village Sushi — just blocks away on 12th Avenue Northeast — and stuff my face.

I should have learned my lesson and eaten lunch before seeing the film itself, but for some insane reason, I didn’t, and the experience was tantamount to torture.

This documentary, directed by David Gelb, catalogs the legacy of Jiro Ono, arguably the best sushi chef the world over. Ono’s Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, seats only 10 people, has no menu, and serves nothing but sushi. No appetizers, no drinks. Just sushi.

This simplicity, this total, almost obsessive devotion to a single craft, is the film’s overarching theme. It features numerous sources — food critics, his children, and employees — who claim Ono only steps out from behind the counter of his restaurant when he absolutely has to, like for funerals. Otherwise, he pursues his work relentlessly, improving his product bit-by-bit through daily ritual.

The cinematography mirrors Ono’s single-mindedness. Time and again, the camera returns to a single image: a close-up of a hand placing an immaculate piece of sushi on a square black plate — the deceptively simple-looking product of a complex culinary process perfected over the course of a lifetime.

The film strives to eschew boredom by showing the audience that a life wholly dedicated to one skill is far from simple. It plumbs the depths of Ono’s relationship with his two sons — also sushi chefs — and their attempts to cope with life in their father’s shadow.

When not focused on the inner workings of the restaurant, the movie ruminates on the process of acquiring top-notch seafood. The scenes documenting trips to the fish market are fascinating at first, but even close-ups of live octopi and slabs of raw tuna lose their appeal eventually.

Intermittently, a legion of black-and-white photos augmented with the Ken Burns effect provides viewers with historic context, alluding to the role an absentee father and a childhood spent in poverty played in forming Ono’s formidable work ethic and high expectations for his own sons. This is not poorly done, per se, but it’s nothing original.

Such uninventive competency is the trademark of this film. The camera work uses panoramic shots and fading effectively. The transitions between action shots and interviews are snappy. The dialogue presents the inspirational story candidly. In other words, it’s exactly the type of “interesting” documentary you’d imagine your parents sitting down to enjoy with a nice cup of tea.

Ono’s dedication to his craft is beyond reproach, but I would have fallen asleep in the theater if ogling his sushi didn’t make me so hungry.

The verdict: It’s a nice story, but when it comes to engrossing documentaries, there are bigger fish in the sea.

Reach reporter Joseph Sutton-Holcomb at arts@dailyuw.com.

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