Tuna should never be cooked. I know tuna salad and tuna casserole wouldn't exist without flame, but that is a sad waste of a noble fish. The sumptuous texture, the buttery flavor, the gorgeous look of its milky pink striations, draped as a thin, expertly carved slice of fresh, raw fish over a not-to-dense nugget of vinegar rice, and a touch of wasabi in between -- the form of sushi known as nigiri--renders fresh (really fresh) tuna in a sublime, elevated perfection that can't be described as anything else but art.
Umami is the Japanese term for a unity of balance, a depth in simplicity -- mainly based on flavors in cuisine, but also the human reaction to anything that achieves an ethereal transcendence.
Jiro Ono, for longer than the average American male lifespan, has been doing nothing but working towards umami with his food, attempting to craft perfect sushi in a perfect restaurant. Awarded three Michelin stars, Jiro Ono's small, 10-seat, Tokyo bar enjoys a recommendation that basically means that no matter what country you live in on earth it would still be worth the trip to Japan to eat there.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, from director David Gelb, is an allegory for an ethic. No single form of cuisine inspires a sense of attention to detail and rigorous fealty to cultural tradition as sushi.
Gelb's camera delves behind the Michelin stars, with as intimate access as possible considering the stoicism of its subject, to reveal the life of a man who was forced from home at the age of nine and did nothing but learn his craft, inspired and thankful through an abundance of absurdly dedicated work.
The first minutes of the film reveal the 85-year-old master and his simply delineated wisdom on how to succeed. Stay focused; dedicate your every waking hour to your goals -- to the exclusion of family and any social life outside of the profession you've chosen. Never, ever greet a day without trying to improve on what you do, which is pretty much what you will do every day until you die.
The most fascinating aspects of (aside from the OCD work ethic and the beautifully crafted and photographed edibles) are Jiro's relationships with his two sons. The elder, Yoshikazu is expected to succeed his father's business. All the while, Japanese mores dictate that once he does he'll have to make sushi twice as good as his father to be considered as good, at all. In all likelihood the customers might even stop coming to the restaurant despite the fact the 50-year-old son is just as responsible for its reputation of world-renowned food as his father is.
Jiro's youngest, Takashi, escaped that fate, opening his own branch of the family business (by force, as well). His restaurant mirrors that of his father's location -- as left and right hands on the same body. But the mood of Takashi's place sets it apart from the infamous seriousness of Jiro's renowned, expensive exhibition. The yin/yang of it translates into Takashi charging less money for equal quality, but with a traded sense of relaxation.
Both sons are loyal to Jiro, a wizened, gentle man who clearly was an uncompromising and distant father before he began molding his sons in his image -- or at least Yoshikazu, his "true" heir: a less stoic but no less dedicated master of the art his father is known for.
Sure, a trip to Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, a massive compound of the world's best seafood (and the expert sellers who only cater to the best restaurants, in a nearly factional manner) is food porn -- along with the endless shots of sushi that will make you squirm if you love the fantasy of scarfing it all.
Director David Gelb adeptly crafts a nice balance between the chronicling of Jiro's life and masturbation material for foodies who will never make it to Japan. The verdantly orchestral soundtrack just rubs it in their faces.
But it's the familial bonds that Gelb captures which essay a dedication to an ethos of flawlessness that's nearly alien in America. One that drives the entire Ono family -- not to mention a cadre of willing followers, as Jiro still offers decade-long, totally free internships. It's a window into all of their lives through their food, and thus their culture, which makes Jiro Dreams of Sushi a compelling and visually unctuous slice-of-life.
Pass the sake.
It might seem odd that a fictional, Israeli film about Talmudic scholarship offers many of the same lessons imparted by a real-life, Japanese sushi master. But at their cores Footnote and Jiro Dreams of Sushi embody the same themes of generational respect and resentment, societal ethics, and a dedication to rigorous knowledge in the service of discovering a metaphysical truth -- yin and yang, yet again.
Footnote is the tale of Eliezer Shkolnik (former stage comedian, Shlomo Bar Aba, not being funny here in the very least) and his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), both Talmudic researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Eli has spent his life as a philologist, dedicating most of it to the search for a European version of the Talmud. His 30-years of work are essentially scooped by his arch-nemesis, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who just went to Italy and found a copy of the thing, catapulting Grossman to the top of the college hierarchy while Eli becomes an academic outcast, despite his scholarly rigor.
To make matters worse Eli's son, Uriel, has become a Talmudic rock star, writing books, appearing on television and earning an induction to the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities -- a Board his already disapproving father despises as much as he wishes he were a part of.
Eli's resentment never seems to dull the respect that his son feels for the stoic, curmudgeonly scholar. So when Eli is mistakenly informed (to his long suffering delight) that he's been nominated for the Israel Award -- essentially the highest national honor -- instead of his son, Uriel, for whom it was actually meant, well, the shit winds up hitting the proverbial fan.
The fine performances from Bar Aba and Lewensohn aren't quite enough to offset the tonal inconsistencies of writer/director Joseph Ceder's sometimes jaunty and at other times dramatic narrative. Aba plays Eli as a nearly wordless douche, trashing his son in the press once he thinks he's earned his due despite Uriel's fealty to his father's unrecognized importance. How that unfolds in the plot renders neither character sympathetically, culminating in a dramatic resolution of unearned importance and ambiguity.
Ceder shoots a fine looking film, though one peppered with stylistic flourishes that further confuse the tone, veering between a near farcical comedy-of-errors and serious family drama. To its credit, Footnote never really drags or looks less than good. But it also never unifies its narrative, style and plotting in a truly organic way.
For all the conspiratorial talk of A Separation (an Iranian film) undeservedly beating out Footnote for this year's Oscar, it winds up being an ironic meta-statement that the better film actually won.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cinema to
Share this article: