As many a documentary filmmaker seem to agree, Albert Maysles specifically, the purpose of the non-fiction filmmaking style is to quote reality to some degree. A larger question arises though when we are to consider a individual or a reality so unusual or exceptional that they transcend our own understandings of the real or the factual. This certainly proved true with the penultimate documentary Grey Gardens, directed by Albert and his brother David, however, it also proves to be grounds for many other documentaries, although in most instances filmmakers manage to find exceptional subjects, only to completely drop the ball on creating their world, or as suggested earlier, visually quoting their reality. This is certainly the case with I Like Killing Flies, a work with a incomprehensible figure that flails to cinematically reflect on the vibrance of the subject. In contrast, exists what has come to be the standout documentary of last year, 2011's Jiro Dreams of Such, which focuses on world famous sushi chef Jiro Ono, who in his eighties still attends work regularly and delivers a product to his diverse customer base that he acknowledges changes and, hopefully, evolves everyday. The traditional Japanese food offered by Jiro is not flashy or fusion heavy, but, instead, simple traditional sushi perfect. Filmmaker David Gelb who both directed and shot this documentary does the idea of quoting reality justice within his visual study of the iconic sushi chef, taking vibrant but subtle angles and deep focus lenses to capture the slow artistry at work in the art of making the cuisine. Often the film simply rests the camera on the piece of sushi as it occupies a minimalist space on a dish, or will use a series of overlaps and cuts to show time evolution and the notion of memory simultaneously. The documentary exists both as a provocation on the state of fish-based food industries in Japan as well as a endearing reflection on the life of an accomplished and hard-working individual. The film is exceptionally well-executed and deserved of the near universal praise it has managed to accrue.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, as noted previously centers on aging sushi master Jiro Ono, a prominent figure not only in Tokyo where he resides, but on the global scale as well being the oldest chef, and one of the few sushi chefs to receive the prestigious three star rating from the Michelin Institute in France, an accolade one food critic quips in the documentary makes it worth going to said country simply to eat at that restaraunt. At the time of this film, Jiro is eighty-five and shows no signs to considering retirement, going so far as to awake early in the morning and leave work quite late at night, a routine he has kept up for well over sixty years. In fact, aside from obeying national holidays and no longer traveling to the fish market, Jiro sustains the same methodologies and approaches from his earliest days in the trade. While many of his contemporaries have either passed or retired, Jiro keeps at his job, while his eldest son, now well into his fifties works under him as assistant chef, per Japanese tradition. Incidentally, his younger son, knowing that he will not be afforded the opportunity to take over the restaurant, leading to the opening of his own restaurant, which is a literal mirroring of his father's place considering that he is right handed. Things seem nearly unstoppable for Jiro and most of the documentary instead chooses to focus on the mad methods incorporated by the chef to assure a quality products, ones he claims are constantly evolving and never perfected. Jiro proves to be the most humble of individuals and clearly possesses a hidden charm that manages to rub off on all those he meets, especially his former employees and the fish market workers with whom he previously worked. If anything is left uncertain in the future of the narrative post filming it is the state of sushi as an art form after the eventual loss of Jiro, as well as the problems with overfish. Although it also considers what troubles Jiro's sons will face living up to their father's illustrious name, yet as the closing moments seem to suggest, this is far from impossible and may already have occurred.
Why then does a seemingly straightforward documentary about a elderly man putting raw fish onto rice seem to gain such mass appeal. I would suggest that its seemingly universal love is a direct relation to the universal motifs and themes promoted within the film. Jiro is probably one of the most likable individuals one could ever hope to encounter in live, yet he suffers from some of the same hardships anyone could imagine, most notably issues with addiction to cigarrettes and forming a lasting bond with his children, even his unique distancing from his parents manages to evolve in to a degree of universality. However, larger themes than these emerge within Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the most obvious being rhetoric surrounding passion and livelihood, one would find difficulty arguing against Jiro's old age being intrinsically tied to the zeal and love he pours out into his work. The philosophically inclined sushi chef goes so far as to say that the moment a person curses their employment proves to be the exact moment in which they cannot produce a decent product. Of course, Jiro also struggles with a variety of issues, whether it be technological changes, adapting to a market inundated with quick consumption sushi or changing demands in customer service, however, the zen like patience of Jiro always adapts, as he does when serving each customer, whether it be adjusting portions to unique paces or serving the food on the left hand side to help a customer who favors that hand. Jiro Dreams of Sushi seems to answer the ever present question of why humanity exists and how one should engage life, if we are to take Jiro's actions to heart, it seems to be to find something we love and continually strive to perfect that, even if said perfection comes in embracing its simplicity.
Key Scene: There is a moment when Jiro's work is compared to a piece of music that would be on the nose in any other work, however, given the artistic magnitude of this surprisingly minimalist film it fits in all to perfectly.
This is an exceptional film and one of the most stellar documentaries of the past year, if not the past decade. It is a beautiful work currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly, there is no justification for missing its perfection.