“I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”
Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb, 2012, Magnolia Pictures
In circumstances that I have since forgotten I came across a tweet from noted New York composer Nico Muhly that I thought I had dismissed as facetious drivel. Muhly is well regarded as a contemporary classical composer, best known for furnishing some of New York's finest indie rock with distinctive, minimal orchestration. Grizzly Bear's 'Cheerleader' from their LP Veckatimist, for instance, features a choral backing written by Muhly that you can only really hear when listening with headphones, but after having heard it once, the song is transformed from a catchy little Brooklyn indie number into a beautiful, careful wonder. Muhly's distinctive, shimmering strings accompany Usher on his Diplo-produced 'Climax' and feature throughout much of Antony and the Johnsons’ work. This was his tweet:
whenever mad young composers are like "gimme advice" I always want to say "watch jiro dreams of sushi" and then do that but music.— Nico Muhly (@nicomuhly) October 6, 2013
I wanted to ignore it as the kind of wildly hyperbolic nonsense that gets thrown around all the time. For whatever reason I couldn't shake Jiro Dreams of Sushi from my mind. It could have been in this strange singularity—watch this one movie, not the entire filmography of Ingmar Bergman—or the specificity of this recommendation—an otherwise vaguely interesting documentary about a sushi master. Either way, about three weeks later I found myself with a copy and sat down in front of my computer at about 2:30am and watched it.
The film revolves around one man Jiro and his three Michelin star sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Jiro's restaurant seats 11 people, it only serves sushi. If you eat quickly, the 22-piece set menu is over in 45 minutes. It costs about $350. He is 86 years old. Jiro's entire life has been spent perfecting sushi, his industriousness is terrifying to watch. The famous Tokyo food critic Yamamoto tells us that when Jiro accepted his Michelin stars at a special ceremony that attracted great attention from the world of fine food, he left early to make sure he was back at work by the time service began. He has barely holidayed, he has suffered a heart attack, he will work until he is too senile to continue, he tells the camera, or unless he becomes too frightfully old and his customers find him unsightly. He is joined in the kitchen by his eldest son Yoshikazu who will take over the restaurant when Jiro dies. His other son Takashi has opened his own sushi restaurant, itself highly lauded, if at a slightly lower price. Takashi offers a more relaxed atmosphere, his customers tell him that they actually prefer to come to his place over his father's—they are too intimidated by Jiro, and besides, the sushi here is just as good.
Jiro is limitless—aside from his age, no other aspect has kept him from continuing to refine and perfect his craft. “The difference between Jiro today and Jiro 40 years ago is only that he stopped smoking. Other than that, nothing has changed,” Yamamoto says. Each day he makes the very best sushi, from the best fish, the best rice, from the craftsmanship that can only come from decades of quiet industry. This comes at the exclusion of almost all else. Jiro's two sons describe a childhood without a father, who would leave before the children awoke in the morning and arrive home late after they went to sleep. Jiro's wife is never met, her absence lends the film a kind of fabled melancholy—his extraordinary culinary success comes at a cost to everyone around him, the singularity of his dream, to make perfect sushi, has no rivals. When speaking plainly, Jiro does not articulate some complex philosophy that determines his life, he does not have a theory of food and eating in the same way other famous chefs do. He seeks deliciousness. He provides hospitality. He uses the best ingredients he possibly can. He works. “I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is,” he says. Jiro's ghost will continue working, continue tasting and cutting and serving into infinity, in a sense this already is Jiro, at rest in this tireless activity.
To a field of restless nighttime creatures addled by screens, drifting between a series of unsatisfying activities—a few jobs, university, perhaps—Jiro's focus is frightening. The selfishness of his life, the obvious damage it has had on his two sons, and his absent wife, seems incomprehensible. Yoshikazu describes his late teenaged years, where he wished to first be a famous race car driver, but failing to have the necessary perfect vision he instead decided to go to college. Jiro talked him out of it and into working at the restaurant, so from 19 years old, he did, and has ever since. Yoshikazu can see in periphery in a way that Jiro cannot. The strange joy that I experienced when Yoshikazu showed the camera, in obvious but understated pride, his own Audi RS6, an extraordinarily fast and impressive German car, meant that the ultimate tragedy of Jiro had not been impressed onto his oldest son. We are destined to become our parents in our own old age, yes, but Yoshikazu has managed to escape fate in however minor terms.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is made by an American David Gelb and is scored in pieces of music from the legendary Phillip Glass. As Americans peering into Japan, certain clarifying questions are asked that only an outsider would ever think to ask. The strangeness of Japanese culture turns the story of Jiro and his two sons into something mythic, a fable of success and its costs. Their stoicism, their resignation and ritual feel like a faraway dream, a distilled spirit of virtue that otherwise is wholly alien, if always commanding a grave respect.
Nico Muhly’s tweet delivers in two ways: it emphasises the all-consuming commitment and determination necessary in the creation of anything truly great, and the sacrifice that will come from this; and it also calls attention to the huge, billowing depth of this particular documentary, a film that addresses the question of how one is to spend his or her life with a natural honesty free of cynicism or pretence. When Jiro settled on his trade, he went to work, and has not stopped:
Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.