Monday, April 25, 2011
Persistence, determination, perfection, pressure. All those aspects came across in this documentary recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. While I enjoyed the movie, it lacked any real conflict that could have made it more stimulating. For food porn enthusiasts, it's certainly 81 minutes of close-ups and slow-motion sushi plating.
Coming from the perspective of someone who has enjoyed one of these types of lavish sushi dinners before (Urasawa), the film made me nostalgic for that experience once again. To me, it didn't seem outrageous to pay for a meal like this, but I can imagine that the audience may not come from the same view. In one scene, a wanderer enters the restaurant and is quickly rebuffed when told that the starting price is $300 per person. A few audience members gasped, although fewer than I would imagine at a regular screening considering this was a New York film festival. To me, I was doing a quick price comparison with my meal at Urasawa in my head. For reference, my dinner at the U started at $350 two years ago, but had twice as many courses. Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten only serves about 20 courses of sushi, while Urasawa also does a kaiseki portion.
Without that sticker shock value, I wonder if I may not be the target for this documentary. If this documentary was for those who dine extravagantly, then the food isn't anything they haven't seen before. If it was for the non-initiated, then it's much more ephemeral, or fantastical. In fact, with the multitude of slow motion shots, I feel like the the target audience was more of the latter than the former. "Look at how much care these people put into their food. Isn't it fascinating?" But for anyone who has been exposed to the laborious presentations of fine dining, this aspect is somewhat lost.
However, this movie isn't only about high-end sushi. The story is simple; as the title suggests, it is a movie about a man and his single ambition to make good sushi. It's a sweet story and the characters certainly are endearing. Centrally, it is a story about the old man behind the counter with much more vigor than his body can provide and the son, groomed for twenty years to take over but with more pressure than Prince Charles.
While documentaries are commonly criticized for artificially creating drama through staged events or creative editing, that is what makes many of them compelling. A documentary avoid its stigma as a snoozefest when you see conflict. In this aspects, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is lacking. I can see the conflict brewing on the horizon--the inevitable day when the son must take over the restaurant, but there is not much in the film that needs to be overcome.
As a movie about a passionate octogenarian and the son in his footsteps, it is touching. If you want to watch the film just to see shots of fancy sushi, you'll be pretty satisfied as well.