While filming his profile of Jiro Ono, who is touted as the world's greatest sushi chef, David Gelb applied an appropriate guideline.
"I asked myself, 'What would Jiro do?'" Gelb says.
Though he is internationally renowned and his restaurant earned three Michelin stars, the Zen-like 85-year-old Jiro humbly goes about his pursuit of perfection in a restaurant more about craft than business. Gelb modeled his own tightly focused film on Jiro's purist approach. The result is a strangely compelling documentary about one man's lifelong journey and fulfillment.
The acclaimed film Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of the documentaries and features in the New Orleans Film Society's FilmOrama, a slate of 21 movies that turn the Prytania Theatre into a multiplex for a week (April 20-26), offering a large selection of choices before the summer blockbuster season arrives.
While American TV is full of shows about celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and over-the-top presentations of food, Jiro's restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro is of another world — one that's particularly Japanese in its reverence for simplicity and purity. Although it is in the Ginza district, one of Tokyo's most expensive and glamorous shopping hubs, it is actually located below ground in a tunnel coming from a subway station (Jiro prefers the air conditioning's constant temperature and humidity, Gelb says in an interview). A meal typically costs at least 30,000 yen (roughly $375), but the place doesn't even have its own restrooms. In fact, there are only enough seats for 10 diners. Reservations must be made at least one month in advance, and the only items served are pieces of nigiri sushi (fish on top of rice) individually created at the bar by Jiro or his eldest son Yoshikazu. A meal consists of roughly 20 pieces, progressing from lighter to richer ingredients, and the event lasts from 30 to 45 minutes. It's fine dining's fast food.
What makes Jiro's sushi tops is his intense focus on the minute aspects of his food. He buys fish from Tokyo's renowned Tsukiji fish market, a massive operation full of specialists, where many fishmongers deal in just one or two species of fish or shellfish. Jiro perfected his rice both in texture and the temperature at which he serves it. As he prepares each ingredient, its temperature also must be exactly right. Jiro has an apprentice massage octopus for 45 minutes to tenderize it to precisely the texture he wants.
"Jiro feels that sushi is misunderstood," Gelb says. "There's so much to learn about the balance between the fish and the rice in order to get to the true essence of the fish — the 'umami,' where barriers melt away."
With his fame, Jiro could open a chain of restaurants, or just find a larger single one, but that is not his goal. At 85 years old, he still pursues perfection. In the opening of the film, he says that a young person must choose a profession and then endlessly seek to master it — a path that for him has been both simply focused and endlessly challenging.
That theme sheds light on the struggles of his sons. Yoshikazu works at Sukiyabashi Jiro and for 30 years has lived in the shadow of his father's reputation. One food critic says he will have to be twice as good just to be considered his father's equal. A younger son opened a related sushi restaurant, and though expectations are great, he won't have to bear the pressures of taking over Sukiyabashi Jiro.
FilmOrama includes many films about rare figures and talents. The opening film is Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which follows the Broadway star at 90 years old, still performing. We Have a Pope is a feature about a cardinal who is unexpectedly elected to the papacy and has a nervous breakdown. Girl Model is a documentary following Russian teens from the most remote reaches of Siberia who aspire to become supermodels in Japan. Marley revisits the career of Bob Marley and includes interviews with associates not previously interviewed as well as family members and fellow musicians (see review on page 43). Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters examines the cinematic approach art photographer Crewdson uses to capture his emotionally powerful images.
Among the foreign films in the festival are a couple of Japanese cult classics. House offers a surreal and schlocky mix of Japanese cutesiness and horror-gore, and Battle Royale is a dystopic precursor to The Hunger Games. French films include The Conquest, about president Nicolas Sarkozy, which was the first French film made and released about a current president. The British film Kill List is a thriller about a soldier who comes home from war and becomes a hitman.
Several filmmakers will attend screenings. Gelb will attend the Thursday, April 26, screening of Jiro. For the full schedule of films and links to trailers visit the New Orleans Film Society website.