Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Japan’s post-war economic comeback is usually defined by the rise of automotive and electronics giants, such as Toyota and Sony. Yet, during this period, Japan’s impact on world cuisine was arguably just as profound. With the rise of its global popularity, sushi became a food of the masses, but not at Jiro Ono’s restaurant. A plate will set you back $300 (or about 24,500 yen) there. Part documentary profile, part mediation on the elegance (and good taste) of simplicity, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi (trailer here), screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, in collaboration with the Japan Society.

Though outwardly unassuming, the ten-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro earned a coveted three star rating from Michelin. Sushi critics swear they have never been disappointed by a meal there. Yet, Ono’s sushi is deceptively simple. No secret ingredients or unconventional techniques are employed (at least as far as we know). However, Ono’s staff cut no corners in the arduous preparation process and buys only the finest fish and rice.

Ono’s eldest son Yoshikazu is expected to eventually succeed his father, but since the master is still going strong at 85, he has lived his entire life in an understudy role. Ironically, it is the second son Takashi who his father’s blessing to franchise the family name with his own restaurant in the Tokyo suburbs.

Do not expect any family drama in Dreams. Everyone accepts their roles with apparent grace. Instead, Gelb valorizes Ono’s sushi for its aesthetic purity. Fittingly, his lush shots of appetizing rolls are accompanied by the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Max Richter. Though not originally composed for the film, their compositions segue into each other perfectly, sounding all of a piece, much like the distinctive John Adams selections heard throughout I Am Love.

Indeed, Dreams is a sensitively rendered example of cinematic minimalism that might bear comparison to Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (forthcoming on PBS’s Independent Lens). However, that poetic ode to Japanese insect-collecting offers the charm of watching the creepy-crawlers through the fascinated eyes of children. In contrast, Dreams rather depends on viewers’ craving for sushi to hold their interest.

Like Ono’s sushi, Dreams would seem to be for exclusive palettes, but evidently Magnolia Pictures disagreed. They acquired Gelb’s documentary in the first reported sale at Tribeca this year. Quiet and graceful, it is another timely reminder of Japanese contributions to world culture (culinary in this case).

Tragically, our Japanese friends and allies are now experiencing a profound human crisis. Private citizens tired of the inattention of the media and the current administration can show their support by contributing to the Red Cross here or the Japan Society’s relief fund here. Sushi lovers might be particularly so moved after Dreams screens again this Friday (4/29) at the Tribeca Film Festival.