9:52 AM CDT, April 5, 2012
There's so much drooly food porn on TV these days, it takes an exceptional subject to arrest our senses and hold our attention. Now 86, Jiro Ono — the world's premier sushi chef — is that subject. And the lovely little documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” honors Ono while making his culinary creations of horse mackerel, squid, egg, halibut, fatty tuna, “medium” tuna, lean tuna and gizzard shad, served in his 10-seat Tokyo restaurant, look like the most wondrous mouthfuls of fish on rice on the planet.
More than one interview subject in producer-director David Gelb's film speaks of how "nervous" they were trying Ono's restaurant, located underground near the Ginza subway station, for the first time or simply the most recent time. It's a sacred temple of sushi, not well suited to leisurely meals (some diners eat in as few as 15 minutes) or idle chatter regarding its coveted three-star Michelin rating. Ono's presence is quiet but charged from within, and he emits the cool, exacting regard of the monumentally self-critical specialist.
Two Ono sons figure into this story. The younger,Takashi,has opened up his own restaurant elsewhere in Tokyo. Older brother Yamamoto, now 51, per Japanese custom is in line to take over for his father when Jiro retires.
It's not easy being compared with their father, whose own childhood was harsh and virtually fatherless (his father drank and took off when Jiro was 7). Jiro's work ethic borders on the pathological, even among world-class chefs. "Nowadays," Jiro says on camera with a slight smile, "parents tell their children, 'You can return if it doesn't work out.' When parents say stupid things like that, the kids turn out to be failures."
The details are delectable in"Jiro Dreams of Sushi,"such as the time taken to properly massage an octopus before boiling (30 to 40 minutes) or the aspects of Jiro's calling that drive him each day (his goal, always, he says, is to "be regarded honorably").
At 72 minutes, Gelb's documentary (which does revert to the food-doc fallback of the slow-mo close-up once too often) regards with fondness its subject and his kingdom. Plus, we meet a variety of interdependent characters, from tuna vendors to rice experts, all in thrall to Jiro and his sons. I really wish Tokyo were closer.
'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)
Running time: 1:22