Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Father's Son

At least where I live, sushi restaurants are about as prevalent as gasoline stations. You can fill up on sculpted spheres of raw fish and rice not only at neighborhood sushi restaurants but at your local supermarket, convenience store and, yes, even at some of those places where you fill up on gas. While the quality of the sushi may not always be top-notch -- some of it can be as dry as the Sahara and about as tasty as sand clots -- there is strength in quantity.

That alone makes the 2011 documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" of a certain poignance. The 2011 film, now out on video and on many streaming devices, tells the tale of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master sushi chef, or shokunin, who works from a 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. From his humble surroundings, you would never know that Jiro is considered possibly the best at his trade in the world, garnering a coveted three-star rating from the Michelin guide (and there are no four stars).

The documentary itself is more than just a paeon to the art of creating the world's best sushi. It also looks at the world from Jiro's perspective; the still-vital sushi technician in David Gelb's documentary is frequently in the center of the screen talking to the camera about his life philosophy.

And in some ways his success story is alarming to Western eyes. He eschews the idea of business collaboration or in attempting to appeal to mass consumer tastes. Instead, he talks of being a leader, of finding your own passion, of doing whatever makes you happy and not worrying about money. He is an eccentric, an iconoclast. He even offers some parental advice, stating that it is "stupid" to tell children you will support them if they fail. It is better to have them find their own way in the world and use their own wiles, or else they become too soft and too accustomed to failure, he says.

But the documentary's biggest staying power comes from the passing of Jiro's legacy to his eldest son, Yoshikazu. As a noted Japanese food critic remarks in the film, once Jiro is no longer able to run his restaurant, he may lose his clientele. Even if Jiro's son makes sushi as well as he does, there will always be the perception that Jiro is the master and Yoshikazu only the apprentice. Yoshikazu will have to be twice as good as Jiro to succeed, not a small task.

The irony is that Yoshikazu, now 50, has worked his entire adult life under his father's guidance. He is the master behind the master, buying the fresh fish each day at the market, ensuring that it is cut, cooked and shaped to perfection, and performing 95% of the duties. Still, as the movie makes clear, it is all about pleasing Jiro -- the doting father -- that drives the business.

And, make no mistake, the business is difficult. Jiro, a workaholic, espouses the idea that one should do the same routine every day in life and be prepared to learn and work extremely hard. There is great sweat equity behind the making of sushi. I'll never look at a piece of raw tuna the same way again.

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