A Sushi Master Chases Perfection in 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'

There can't be many situations more frustrating than the one in which Yoshikazu Ono finds himself in the new documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The 50-ish sushi chef, the oldest son of revered sushi master Jiro Ono, has worked at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his father's tiny 10-seat restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office tower, since he was 19. Tradition dictates that he will take over the restaurant when his father dies or retires, but Jiro, at 85, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. So while Yoshikazu's younger brother, Takashi, has been free to open his own successful restaurant in another part of the city, Yoshikazu faces a long middle age stuck in second place. To make matters even more confounding, the speed-freak Yoshikazu, who once dreamed of being a fighter pilot or Formula 1 driver, may even be the secret ingredient in his father's worldwide acclaim—it was his sushi that earned Sukiyabashi Jiro its three-star rating in the Michelin Guide.

In a joint interview with Takashi, Yoshikazu accepts his fate with equanimity. This is the way it is, he says, as if it has never occurred to him that it could be any other way. He pursues his vocation with the same quiet purpose as his father—visiting a Tokyo fish market every morning and trading with an eccentric cast of "anti-establishment" seafood dealers, meticulously prepping for lunch and dinner service, and supervising Jiro's small staff of apprentices.

That is pretty much all the drama that director David Gelb uncovers in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but drama is clearly not what he is after here. The movie is more than just a profile; it is a quiet, moving meditation on time, art, and obsession that unfolds with a relaxed and reflective pace befitting its subject.

Jiro approaches his craft with maddening perfectionism and patience. The art of the shokunin, he says, is based on doing the same small tasks over and over again, with the intention of always improving. His restaurant serves sushi and only sushi—no sides, no appetizers, no dessert, no substitutions. Apprentices spend months learning the most basic skills, like how to properly squeeze a hot towel, before moving on to the next step. It might take years before they are ever allowed to touch a fish. Over time, Jiro has learned that octopus should be massaged, by hand, for at least 40 or 50 minutes, not 30 minutes, as he had been taught. Every detail of the restaurant's operation seems to have been considered, from food preparation to the layout. The pace of the kitchen seems easy—unlike the athletic, testosterone- and adrenaline-charged mayhem found in sweaty American and European kitchens—but the routine is utterly relentless, each moment of each day accounted for. The ultimate goal is "deliciousness," by which Jiro seems to mean something more transcendent and sublime than just that his sushi tastes good.

The payoff for his dedication has been both monetary and metaphysical. Diners make reservations up to a year in advance for a one-of-a-kind three-course meal (Jiro designs the menu each morning, based on that day's market haul) that starts at around $300. Even considering the high cost of Jiro's pursuit of perfection—the best, and most expensive, cuts of fish, and a willingness to toss what doesn't meet his standard of deliciousness—the financial rewards have necessarily been great. But Jiro has also achieved the subtle satisfaction that accompanies absolute mastery of a difficult craft. The customers and critics seem almost like an afterthought—what matters to Jiro is the spiritual purity of the process. At one point, he describes himself as "ecstatic" when he is making sushi.

But at what cost? Gelb maintains a subtle touch here, offering small details throughout the movie's 82-minute running time that reveal the price Jiro and his family have paid for his obsessiveness. Jiro, whose alcoholic father abandoned him at the age of 9, acknowledges that he rarely saw his sons when they were children, because of his long days at the restaurant. Yoshikazu and Takashi discuss their family's poverty during Jiro's early career. Yoshikazu shows off his sporty blue BMW, capable, he says, of 300 kilometers an hour—a poignant reminder of his youthful dream of speed. Yoshikazu and Takashi's mother is never mentioned, a glaring oversight in Gelb's otherwise even-handed portrait. Gelb doesn't overlook these transgressions and shortcomings, and he doesn't try to explain them; he forgives them, an act of grace that seems appropriate for a man as humble and human as Jiro.