Kaizen [改善] [kʌɪˈzɛn] noun: A Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement based on making incremental positive changes on a regular basis.
An interesting and admirable concept – one for which there is no close English translation, and one that would take extraordinary self-discipline to maintain over a lifetime. Yet this foundation is exactly what Jiro Ono, one of Japan’s most revered sushi chefs, has built his life, career and unimpeachable reputation on. You’d be hard-pressed to find a clearer cinematic example of Kaizen in action than that presented by Jiro himself in Jiro Dreams of Sushi – the immensely satisfying portrait of this master craftsman.
Much more than a simple culinary documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a fascinating glimpse into the genius of one man, his absolute commitment to his craft, and the challenges presented to his sons by his formidable legacy. Not that the sushi itself is ignored – the film is packed with lovingly-shot sequences of Jiro’s food being bought, sliced, cooked, crafted, served and eaten, which show each individual piece of sushi for the work of art that it is. The crisp and intimate cinematography is complemented perfectly by the lively and stirring classical compositions of Philip Glass, which underline food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto’s assertion that a meal at Jiro’s restaurant is akin to hearing a multi-movement concerto. Director David Gelb notes the similarities between Jiro’s sushi and Glass’s arrangements: “[they are both] repetitive, but build on themselves and escalate – reaching for that one step of improvement.”
In the film we learn about Jiro’s restaurant and two sons – the eldest of whom, Yoshikazu, aged nearly fifty, still works under his father at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro’s original establishment in Tokyo. In accordance with Japanese custom, it is his duty to take his father’s place when the time comes – which, as we watch the energy with which Jiro works, would appear to be some time off. His younger son has been charged with running a sister restaurant in the nearby district of Roppongi Hills – albeit one that charges lower prices to compensate for the absence of Jiro himself. The immense pressure the two sons are under to live up to their father’s reputation is apparent – as critic Yamamoto puts it, “the sons must do twice as well as their father to be considered half as good” – a daunting prospect, and one that clearly weighs on their minds.
Not that Jiro’s incredibly high standards are limited to his heirs, as every apprentice that passes through Jiro’s must work under his tutelage for ten years before being considered a chef in their own right. Indeed, they don’t even touch the ingredients for the first few weeks, which they must spend learning the technique and tolerance for wringing out scalding hot towels. One former apprentice recalls crying with joy when his hundredth-plus attempt at egg sushi was finally accepted by Jiro, with “this is how egg sushi should be.”
Despite the restaurant’s obvious limitations – its tube station locale, minimal seating, and the fact that the toilet facilities are off-site – Sukiyabashi Jiro has been awarded three Michelin stars, the group’s highest possible rating. They deem such a rating “the only one adequate” to do justice to the experience of dining there, and it is heartening to discover near the end of the film that when the restaurant was last granted three Michelin stars, he was served not by Jiro, but by his eldest son.
The film itself is gorgeous to behold, particularly evoking the texture of Jiro’s world – be it a piece of tuna sliced so thinly it resembles jelly, the fine wood grain of his work surface, or the perfect sponginess of a grilled egg cake. The finer details of the sushi-making process are captured in extreme closeup and shallow focus, often in slow motion so as to better accentuate the subtle nuances with which these masters work. These slower images are juxtaposed with sped-up timelapses showing us that as well as being extremely meticulous, they also get a hell of a lot done.
The feel, smell and tastes of the kitchen and restaurant are almost tangible as we are taken around Jiro’s establishment and the chaotic world of the fish markets. Amid the hectic atmosphere of these markets, the film briefly touches upon the worldwide problem of overfishing, one which Jiro and his sons are rightly concerned about – however that is a topic for another film entirely, such is this film’s focus on the relationship between father and son, the need for constant self-improvement and the importance of loving what you do.
The film’s overall message is encapsulated perfectly at the end by Yoshikazu, Jiro’s eldest son:
“Always look beyond and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me”.
And going by Jiro’s mischievous grin that comprises the film’s final image, he appears to have succeeded.