Leading the busy life I do, it's not always easy to fit my other commitments in around my rigorous filmgoing regime, and doing so occasionally forces me to compromise when it comes to things like food and sleep. My personal physician raises objections when I start skipping meals entirely, and so once in a while I have to sneak something to eat while actually in a movie theatre.
Now, obviously there are Code of Conduct issues to consider when it comes to eating at the cinema – no hot food, nothing crunchy or especially pungent, nothing likely to scatter or impinge upon the viewing experience of my fellow patrons. Usually I settle for a soft bap or sandwich spread with something neutral. This is usually not a problem, provided the cinema isn't too crowded (in which case I usually just postpone the food until after the picture's actually finished). However, every now and then a film comes along during which it just feels wrong to be eating sandwiches.
I don't just mean the likes of Texas Chainsaw 3D or anything else likely to perturb the digestion. Tucking into a half-and-half sandwich spread with a nut-derived preserve during a film like David Gelb's Jiro Dreams Of Sushi felt frankly inadequate and was actually rather depressing. I am not normally a foodie of any kind – one of the reasons I ended up taking a packed dinner to this particular film was because the local branch of Burger King is currently being refurbed – but the culinary precision and richness on display left me awash with memories of Tokyo restaurants in which I spent many happy hours, and filled with the desire to enjoy proper Japanese cuisine again. It's that sort of film.
Much of this film takes place inside Sukiyabashi Jiro, a speciality sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. It only seats about a dozen customers at a time, doesn't have its own bathroom, and past patrons report that dining in the presence of head chef Jiro Ono can be a rather intimidating experience. The set meal costs well over a hundred pounds, and speedy eaters can probably get through it in well under half an hour. And yet Sukiyabashi Jiro has three Michelin stars, a waiting list stretching into months, and a list of rapturous recommendations as long as Godzilla's tail. This is, by all accounts, the best sushi restaurant in the world.
Quite how one achieves this kind of quality in any undertaking is, in itself, a fascinating subject for a documentary, and the film spends a lot of time considering it from every angle. There are interviews with Japanese food critics, apprentices past and present from the restaurant, the restaurant's suppliers (their tuna dealer considers himself 'an anti-establishment figure'), but especially with Jiro Ono himself and his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. Yoshikazu assists his father (at the age of 85, Jiro continues to work relentlessly in the restaurant), while Takashi runs a satellite restaurant in the swish Roppongi Hills development.
There are no particular film-making gimmicks employed here, no animations, no narration, just the various men associated with the restaurant talking about it and Jiro himself. And yet it is quite, quite engrossing – I say this as an admirer of Japan and its food, but I think the same would be true for most impartial viewers. Time and again the basic details almost defy belief: apprentices at the restaurant have to work for ten years before they are considered fully-trained. Only then are they permitted to attempt the egg sushi which concludes the set meal there. One apprentice recalls how it took over two hundred attempts before his egg sushi passed muster with the great man.
Jiro is outwardly an unassuming figure, but he is clearly a legend in sushi circles, and held in deep reverence by everyone around him. Occasionally this film touches on wider themes, such as changing attitudes to careers, or indeed the state of the environment (overfishing is beginning to affect the menus of sushi restaurants), but mostly it comes down to this one man and his breathtaking dedication to making the perfect piece of sushi: something he still claims to be working towards. There is iron discipline at work here – both self-discipline and that imposed upon others – and an all-consuming commitment of a kind I can barely conceive.
Well, if nothing else, it's a magnificent obsession, and it's certainly resulted in the creation of a lot of delicious food (even if you do feel hungry again half an hour later). All the participants seem certain that this justifies the long hours, the endless hard work, the strict upbringing Yoshikazu and Takashi both recall, but part of me wonders. For all that Jiro speaks of the choices he has made, it seems to me that people like this are not made but born – this is someone who has found something which is more than a career, but a genuine calling which has overwhelmed his life. The question is simply whether he has been lucky to do so – and I suppose it's a matter for the individual to decide.
In this respect Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is more than just a behind-the-scenes look at a top Japanese restaurant, but an exploration of what it means to dedicate your life to perfection in any undertaking – to live a fulfilled and honourable life, perhaps. This gives the theme of the movie a universality you might not expect. It's a deceptively simple film, but completely fascinating throughout: but it might be worth making a reservation at your local Japanese restaurant for immediately after your viewing of it.