Documentary Sunday

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #119. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Every week, Megan Condis and a group of friends get together for Documentary Sunday, a chance to dive into the weird, the wacky, the hilarious and the heartbreaking corners of our culture.  This column chronicles all of the must-watch documentary films available for streaming.

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I’ve been saving this film for a long time, for a special occasion, and now as the end of my run on  Documentary Sunday looms, I am finally ready to discuss one of my all-time favorites: David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). On the surface, the film is as simple and unadorned (and perfect) as its signature dish. It follows an 85-year-old chef, Jiro Ono, and his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, operating a tiny ten-seat Michelin three-star sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Food lovers from the world over make reservations at least one month in advance to try Jiro’s tasting menu, which costs around $300 US for 20 pieces of sushi. And while the food does look amazing (the fish, painted with soy sauce and placed delicately upon a reflective black frame of a plate, brings to mind glistening gems ready to be inspected by a master jeweler), I must confess that upon repeated viewings I am more interested in how the director draws out the various facets of the other half of its title, how the film reflects on what it means to dream.

On the surface, the film is as simple and unadorned (and perfect) as its signature dish.

The film opens with Jiro describing his recurring dreams of working the line in the kitchen. Fish, rice and seaweed literally follow him in his sleep. I can relate to this; my first job at sixteen years old was in our town’s recently built Taco Bell (we were excited that we had finally gotten our very own “ethnic restaurant”) and I still dream of Chalupas and Cheesy Gordita Crunches on occasion. But of course, Jiro also dreams in the sense of harboring a wish or a long-term goal. Jiro dreams of perfection and his life-long dedication to his craft has transformed him into a kind of high priest of the kitchen. One of his assistants, for example, describes tearing up with joy when, after hundreds of attempts, he was finally able to craft an egg dish to the old shokunin’s liking.

And yet, the film also asks us to consider: can a dream truly be passed down from father to son? Will it survive the journey from generation to generation intact? Jiro’s sons are dedicated, yes, but the character of their passion can never be exactly the same as their father’s, if only because of their different life experiences. Jiro describes leaving home at the age of nine, working for abusive bosses to keep a roof over his head after his father’s business failed. His obsessive perfectionism, we infer, must be some remnant of his childhood trauma. At some level, no matter how successful he becomes, the insecurity that he experienced in his past remains a part of him. For Yoshikazu and Takashi, on the other hand, the restaurant (and the expectations that came along with it) have always been a part of their lives, a shadow looming over them that they can only hope and pray they will one day step out from behind. One wonders, if they were to set their dishes down side-by-side, would one be able to taste the different flavors of their different life paths, their different emotions, their different dreams? After all, taste itself is a kind of dream, an illusion that exists only within the mind of each individual, a quirk of perception rather than an objective quality in nature.

And then there is film itself, which is often referred to as a dream-like medium. Jiro Dreams of Sushi certainly has a somewhat dreamy quality to it, using rhythmic overlapping editing and music cues to initiate us into Jiro’s routines. But, more broadly, film (and documentary film in particular) offers us the unique chance to encounter people and places that we might never meet in waking life and to feel connected with them across vast distances and gaps in time.  In the same way, writing this column has been a dream for me. And so, in these final sentences, I would like to thank Stu Horvath and my colleagues at Unwinnable for letting me dream alongside them. And I would also like to thank anyone who took the time to read these words of mine. I hope that they helped you find something interesting, something stimulating, something infuriating. I hope that they nurtured your own dreams in some small way.

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Megan Condis is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University. Her book project, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture is out now from the University of Iowa Press.

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