The American director discusses Jiro Ono and the exact and artful craft of a sushi enterprise.
27 Mar 2012 - 11:32 AM  UPDATED 27 Mar 2012 - 11:32 AM

Jiro Ono is the 85-year-old proprietor of a sushi-only restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. The first restaurant of its kind to earn a 3-star Michelin review, Jiro works religiously, six days a week, alongside his eldest son, Yoshikazu. Theirs is a strictly regulated and highly labour intensive operation underpinned by a singular model of apprenticeship.

Read Jiro Dreams of Sushi review

David Gelb, director of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, first visited Jiro's 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in a Tokyo subway station with his father, brother and the well-known Japanese food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto. “I was very excited but also quite nervous because I had heard he was very serious. I wanted him to like me,” admits Gelb. “The first thing I noticed was how quickly the meal began. The ingredients are served as soon as the customer enters the restaurant. It was a fast meal because I didn't want to disappoint Jiro by letting the flavour fade from the sushi. I wanted to show him how much I appreciated it. That night, I saw Jiro and his son, a grown man in his fifties, working side by side. I knew there was a family story there. I had to build up trust to the point that I could ask them personal questions but as the shooting and the editing progressed, it became a larger part of the story.”

Gelb's initial access to Jiro was through Yamamoto, who is also a judge on Japan's Iron Chef. Yamamoto was to become Gelb's true collaborator throughout the documentary. “First I convinced Yamamoto to participate,” Gelb says. “He's a huge fan of classical music and my dad is the manager of the Metropolitan Opera. It was rather easy to enlist Yamamoto to our side because in Japanese culture you are your father's son. They sensed that I had artistic integrity. When I explained to Yamamoto the kind of movie I wanted to make, really focusing on the art of sushi and showing Jiro's story from Jiro's perspective, he thought it was something he could pitch. Jiro feels that sushi is very misunderstood. He considers it a privilege to be able to share his philosophy and view of sushi as an art form with the rest of the world.”

Building trust with Jiro was a slow process for Gelb, a debutant feature director. “The first few days of shooting I didn't even bring a camera. I framed myself as a student. I wanted to learn everything I could. The camera eventually started to grow in size. I started with a small digital camera and in the end I used the Red digital camera. He was watching me very carefully and he could see I was very sincere in the work I was doing. He became patient with me. Eventually, he started to help the movie. If they got an especially nice octopus that day they would call me and make sure I was there.”

As well as sumptuous shots of sushi itself, Gelb's film documents the entire process of evolution, from the fish markets where Yoshikazu travels daily on his bicycle to buy produce that will become, for example, O-Toro (fatty tuna), Chu-Toro (medium tuna) and Akami (lean tuna) sushi, to Jiro's kitchen staff, who work diligently and relentlessly to become Shokunin [craftsmen] in their own right. Jiro's apprentices begin by attending to the hot towels served when customers enter the restaurant. They then progress to preparing the fish. It takes 10 years to attain the skills necessary to make egg sushi and they must work repetitively to achieve the high standard required, failing many times along the way. In Gelb's film, these daily preparations are set to a classical soundtrack of Philip Glass. “In hindsight, I think the reason that Philip Glass works so well for Jiro is because the music is repetitive yet always escalates and builds,” Gelb explains. “Jiro's work ethic is repetitive. He's trying to do the same thing everyday but at the same time he's looking for that one step of improvement. He's trying to reach the next level. The music of Philip Glass matches perfectly.”

Ono's process, honed over decades, has made him a national and global sensation but he doesn't work alone. For Gelb, a number of factors stand out as particularly extraordinary. While it is Jiro who developed the rigorous preparation process of the rice and fish served in his restaurant, there are a number of Shokunin who make his work possible. “There's a network of masters behind the scenes that are sourcing all of these ingredients,” Gelb reflects. “They are the best at what they do. There's one salesman who just works with wasabi, one who just works with nori [Japanese seaweed], one guy who only deals with rice and one who only deals with shrimp. It's a team of people who have individually dedicated their lives to the mastery of something that seems simple. Once you learn everything that goes into making sushi, it becomes a very emotional experience to eat it.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently screening in a limited season at Melbourne's Cinema Nova, with other states to follow.