I don’t know if Jiro Ono is a Buddhist. I don’t know if Jiro is really even a very nice person. What I do know, after watching a movie about him, is that Jiro has attained a level of skill in his craft that most humans only dream of.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about a man and his sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. Jiro, at the time of filming, was 85 years old. Every day except Sunday, he gets up and goes into work at Sukiyabashi Jiro. There, along with his son Yoshikazu and a handful of apprentices, he serves up what many consider the best sushi on the entire planet.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is in a subway station. It’s a tiny, 10-seat restaurant. It costs an exorbitant amount of money to eat there. There is no menu. There are no appetizers. You put your name on a waiting list that exceeds a month, you pay almost $400, and you eat what Jiro puts in front of you while he watches—and only then will you experience the highest state of sushi ever created.
Much of the film focuses on Jiro and his relentless pursuit of perfection. Every single piece of sushi he serves up is an attempt to make it better than the last. You can see, then, that being an apprentice under a man who is never satisfied would probably be extremely challenging.
Throughout the film, we see Jiro standing, sternly glaring at his apprentices, his son, or his customers (he watches his customers eat, which many find off-putting). He appears lost in contemplation; studying his customer’s faces as they eat, watching the body language of his apprentices, making sure his son is doing everything correctly. He is absolutely, at all times, focused on one thing and one thing only: the sushi.
There are lessons to be learned from Jiro. Finding a craft that you’re passionate about and then uncompromisingly pursuing it is admirable. Is sushi important? It doesn’t matter. Does Jiro’s obsession with perfection affect his personal relationships? It doesn’t matter. Is Jiro loved? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Despite the titular character and the focus on Jiro, however, the movie seems to be more about his son, Yoshikazu. Here is a man who is in his 50s, and for his entire life he has been working under his father’s strict and uncompromising control. He didn’t go to college. No wife or children were mentioned. We see a long scene in which Yoshikazu is talking to the filmmakers as he methodically roasts sheets of nori, the seaweed used to wrap sushi rolls. During the entire scene, he talks about doing the same thing over and over again, about learning something so thoroughly that it becomes your nature, and about finding peace with this type of lifestyle. During the entire monologue, the camera is focused on Yoshikazu’s hands. He never loses a beat, he never falters—it’s as if he is a robot, perfectly programmed for this one simple task.
Yoshikazu seems extremely happy in his life. He goes to the market, he forges friendships with fish and rice experts, and yet he proudly boasts of his father’s work, of his father’s awards, of his father’s achievements.
Jiro admits to being a rather bad father. Throughout his sons’ childhood, he was not present, since he was always at the restaurant. He does show moments of tenderness, though, even as he claims he is extra strict with Yoshikazu and his other son Takashi. Takashi opted to move out of his father’s business and open his own sushi restaurant (with his father’s blessing). However, when Takashi moved out, Jiro told him “You have no home to return to.” In this way, Jiro was making sure Takashi understood that he absolutely had to succeed. Failure was not an option.
Yoshikazu says, throughout the film, that he will never be as good as his father. A prominent food reviewer says, “Yoshikazu could be twice as good as his father and only then will they say he is as good as Jiro. He won’t have it easy.”
Yoshikazu and the apprentices (the ones that make it for more than a day or two, anyway) are paragons of patience and dedication. There is a scene in which one of the apprentices talks about spending four years working on perfecting tamagoyaki (egg sushi). Every day, for four years, he would make tamagoyaki and have Jiro tell him what was wrong with it, how bad it was, and to do it again. Finally, one day, Jiro tasted the tamagoyaki, said, “It’s good. That’s how it should be done.”
The apprentice broke down in tears. He had achieved a small bit of enlightenment.
One glaring omission from this film is any mention at all of Takashi and Yoshikazu’s mother—presumably Jiro’s wife. Jiro does talk about his parents and childhood a bit (it was bleak), but he never mentions anything about his love life. It’s as if Takashi and Yoshikazu were hatched from eggs and specifically groomed for sushi. They may as well have been born in the restaurant.
This movie makes you think about what you do. It makes you want to buckle down and practice your craft. It’s a shining example of what passion and focus can achieve, but there are also lessons about life and love to be had.
Perhaps only through this level of determination and mindfulness can perfection be achieved. Jiro is a man who was ready and willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to achieve perfection. Whether you like him or not is irrelevant. Perhaps that’s what we’re meant to take from this.