February 3, 2013

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” teaches you nothing about sushi, but about everything else.


Hand SushiOkay, maybe Jiro does teach you something about sushi, but not a whole lot. This documentary is more about a man than a craft. Jiro is best described as a Yoda-like figure teaching us the ways of his mental discipline. Or as Netflix summarizes:

“This delectable documentary profiles sushi chef Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master whose 10-seat, $300-a-plate restaurant is legendary among Tokyo foodies… inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance to reserve a seat.”


Too Much Too Soon

The intro to the documentary is done very well with a sharp montage and great music. Unfortunately, a few minutes in, this energy is lost as we are spoon-fed a medley of Jiro’s credentials. While it is important to validate Jiro as our all-knowing messiah on sushi, this process takes up a bit too much screen time. It felt like a first-course appetizer that was simply too large for its own good.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 1.47.01 PM

Our patience is rewarded, however, when we find out that Jiro was forced out of his home at the delicate age of 7. We are told that Jiro’s parents kicked him out of the house and made it clear he should never come back. Alone as a 7 year-old, with failure no longer an option, young Jiro needed to work to survive. He explains how this incredible “do or die” ultimatum led him to his lifelong passion. Jiro’s passion is undoubtedly the centerpiece of this film and provides true inspiration for anyone in the workplace.

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This revelation brings a bold new perspective to an otherwise two-dimensional character. Of course this crucial piece of information could have been used as a great opener to the film, but it wasn’t, it was saved and guarded until it was absolutely necessary. Which leads us to…

Doc Tip #1: Don’t reveal too much too fast. At the beginning of your film you already have your audiences attention. They’ve read the title and the description and they’ve pressed play. Lead with something interesting, but save your best stuff for the middle, when the audience’s attention typically dwindles.

The documentary does a great job of sprinkling teasers throughout the first-course in order to entice us to stay. We briefly learn of Jiro’s previous heart attack and the son’s still unmet desire to take over the business. These story elements are left unexplored for a long time, which is both good and bad. Its good in the sense that nothing is revealed too quickly, but for the inpatient viewer it could be a major turn-off.

Beauty Speaks Louder than Words

Luckily the cinematography more than makes up for the choppy story. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous! It mimics Jiro’s style in its artistry, his skills in its pacing, and his philosophy in its purity. The camera moves wonderfully through jump cuts and uses shallow depth of field with a precise purpose. This doc could be studied for its cinematography and editing alone. At certain points the viewer will simply tune out of the story and admire the beautifully crafted sushi, which is good, very good. We don’t recommend watching this film on an empty stomach!

Another huge plus for this documentary is the sound design. It works seamlessly with the cinematography to immerse us in the story. And that brings us to…

Doc Tip #2: Use sound to isolate your subject and bring attention to it. Sometimes bringing out only one sound can create a far more powerful moment than a clutter of sounds. For example, the sound of the son beating the seaweed paper against the stone really brings out his frustration about his minimal role in the restaurant. We don’t need to hear the ambient noise of the room, the fan in the background, the people nearby, etc. You don’t always need to “document” the real sounds of an environment.

The classical music that follows the film throughout is no coincidence either. We’re sure when the food critic said, “Jiro’s food is like a concierto,” a lightbulb flickered on in the director’s head. Setting the film to classical music compliments Jiro’s artful skills perfectly and slowly slips us into Jiro’s world.

Slow and steady, but Jiro wins the race

Jiro SmilesOverall, the documentary is very well made. The slow-pace of this documentary is really a reflection of Jiro’s philosophy towards life: work hard, have patience, and you will be rewarded.  It brings to light a person with remarkable talent and lets us share in his small unique place of the world. The cinematography and sound design is simply incredible, however, we would have liked the story to move a bit quicker. Many interesting moments, such as Jiro’s ideas on overfishing and the vendor’s expertise, were presented very late and a bit randomly. But, Jiro’s philosophies and interesting character far make up for this slow pacing. We would recommend this documentary to more of an artsy or enthusiast audience.



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