Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Netflix Streaming Review - Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Man on Wire-esque documentary that uses the culture of sushi to explore one man's pursuit of perfection.

Thanks Jiro, making me feel reeeeeal good about drinking this here Cobra 
Okay, so I have a confession to make.  Diners, Drive Ins and Dives on the Food Network is easily one of my biggest guilty pleasures, especially on a hangover Sunday.  And I don’t really know why.  Call me old-fashioned, but Guy Fieri is a lumbering, mouth-breathing caricature that is either an evil genius fooling everyone and becoming insanely wealthy in the process or a tacky, out-of-touch goon that just happened to stumble upon a random pot of gold.  Either way, I don’t like him.  But beyond lazy ad hominem attacks, the real issue of DDD is that the structure of the show is a one trick pony designed to appeal to our most base instincts.  “DEEP FRIED POTATO PANCAKES COVERED IN WHIPPED CREAM AND POWDERED SUGAR!?!?!  UGH, PUT IT IN MY BUTT ASAP BROCHACHO!!!  WATCH OUT FLAVORTOWN, THERE’S A NEW MAYOR IN TOWN!!!” *passes out from hyperglycemia*

DDD is food porn.  It is not a celebration of cuisine as it portrays itself; it is a willful, unapologetic rape of it.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the opposite.  Where a show like DDD debases the culture of food for the sake of shallow, short-term pleasures, Jiro elevates it to the near divine.  The documentary is not so much about sushi, or even food, but instead a man whom embodies a philosophy that is personified in his approach to his craft.  Not to be too hyperbolic, but it really is a film devoted to conveying the best of what it means to be human.  And it is a beautiful thing to witness.

The film follows 85 year-old Jiro Ono, world-renowed sushi chef and owner of the Michelin three star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.  The restaurant is tiny and unassuming, located in the basement of a Tokyo office building with a maximum capacity of ten.  And yet its reputation far exceeds its simple ambiance, with dishes garnering a minimum price tag of nearly $350 and a wait list of that spans over a month.  Numerous patrons express the dual emotions of excitement and nervousness they endure when eating in front of Jiro, a short and wizened elderly gentleman.  For it is the stern presence and gravitas so effortlessly exuded by Jiro that gives the film such life.

When I reviewed The Queen of Versailles, I highlighted that one of my favorite aspects of the film was the director’s decision to steer as clear from as possible from dictating the narrative; almost as if she were filming a family of polar bears dealing with climate change than a human family dealing with a lifestyle change.  Jiro’s director, David Gelb, takes a somewhat different approach, but it suits the film perfectly.  Whereas there was a very real story to convey in The Queen of Versailles, Jiro is far more about a man, his craft and the profound effect he has on those around him.  There is a legendary mythos surrounding Jiro (seriously, people talk about this guy like he’s a god), and Gelb takes the approach not to try and cut through the mythology and attempt and “examine the man”, but instead further highlights Jiro’s near godlike status.  He does this though incorporating minimalist music from the likes of Philip Glass, exquisitely shooting the sushi prep process as if you are watching a great sculptor mold a piece of clay (by the way, see this thing in HD) and taking us to various seafood vendors who further build up the mystique of Jiro and the sushi trade in general.

I love this approach because, at the end of the day, we are not looking for a biographical piece on Jiro Ono.  We are looking to become immersed in an immensely foreign and unique subculture.  Gelb’s decision to highlight perception over investigative truth may not win him any documentary equivalent Pulitzers, but it is indeed a beautiful thing to witness and feel a part of.

Grade - A

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