The 85-year-old subject of Jiro Dreams of Sushi claims he comes up with his award-winning dishes late at night, in bed and in the privacy of his subconscious thoughts. Whether or not that's true isn't the point. Jiro Ono —- the owner of a 10-seat diner-like restaurant buried in a Tokyo subway station — is hailed as the planet's best sushi chef. As one fan of his work says, it's the only eatery without a restroom to earn a coveted three-star Michelin review. People come from all over the world to sit at Jiro's counter and eat his pricey sushi. That's the stuff dreams are made of.
Lots of people talk about Jiro and his sushi in this documentary made by newcomer David Gelb, who will host a Q&A after the film's 7 p.m. screening on Friday at the Capitol Theatre. A food critic says he still gets nervous when he walks into the restaurant. His sons say they barely saw their hard-working father when they were growing up. And former employees say he's strict, demanding, and a perfectionist — all compliments, by the way. And that's pretty much the point of Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The man doesn't care about money; his only concern is serving the best food that he can.
So we get plenty of scenes of Jiro in the kitchen, slicing fish, looking over his employees' shoulders, and preparing sushi. No doubt fans of food porn will drool over some of the dishes Jiro prepares, especially when they unspool in slow motion as Jiro's wrinkled fingers form raw seafood and rice into mini works of art. But the film is more about the man who makes the food.
We learn about his hard childhood (pretty much abandoned by his parents, he was on his own when he was nine), crushing poverty, and the huge legacy his sons, whom he trained, must live up to. We also get a brief history of sushi's popularity, a glimpse into buying fresh seafood, and lots of lingering shots of employees standing by as Jiro — who's been doing this for 75 years — instructs them on the craft of sushi-making.
You wouldn't think there's all that much to the preparation of raw fish, but the movie goes into much detail about Jiro's marination techniques, his secret to serving octopus (hint: It's massaged for 40 minutes), and how to properly cook rice. Unfortunately, this leads to more scenes of squirming fish and slow-motion knife cuts than of the finished food.
Like so many documentaries that focus on a single subject, Jiro Dreams of Sushi starts to run out of new things to say after a while. Everyone agrees Jiro is a sushi genius. And everyone agrees he can be difficult. Ex-employees tell us that. His sons tell us that. Even some guy at the fish market says it. And scenes that focus on a son being groomed to take over the business vie for attention in a movie that should, like its protagonist, spend every waking and sleeping minute thinking about raw fish.