That’s how the light gets in
Anthem. Leonard Cohen
I emerged from my first viewing of ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ a little unsettled. Like most, I was captivated by the exquisite surface story of Jiro’s life as internationally celebrated sushi master. Tears sprung freely to my eyes during the meal sequence in his small sushi bar. But resting just below the flawless surface is the scant and harsh understory of his formative years. It was the tenacious and complex weave of this story in Jiro’s life that compelled me to return for another viewing.
Jiro would have us believe that his life story is cleaved in two. The first story that of the young boy brutally abandoned by his father, followed by a story of survival and spectacular self-making. But much of the documentary points to Jiro’s impotence in teasing the two apart. Out of the interplay of past and present emerges a fascinating and humane portrait of a man with a messy and irresolute story. That he still possesses the photo of himself as a young boy alongside his father betrays his own need for that past. The root story gives Jiro the feet of clay that spare him from being remote or too perfect.
That Jiro’s exceptional restaurant is located in Ginza subway station is a meta- expression of his humanness. The film opens with the fumbling inquiries of an ordinary subway patron who unknowingly has stumbled into Jiro’s domain. What ensues is pure wabi-sabi - the ordinary suddenly and strikingly abutting the extraordinary. Who could not succumb to such a unique seduction? Even the very staid French Michelin guide fails to resist and, in an unprecedented gesture, awards three stars to an establishment that on the surface is at odds with their rigorous standards.
The absence of his wife in the documentary was troubling, particularly in light of his advancing age. He tells us she exists when he admits that were he to retire he would drive her crazy. But she marks a much larger absence. Save for a few brief moments that include a photo of Jiro as a boy with his mother, and another of his young family that includes his wife, there is no feminine presence. The film traces the male lineage, most importantly the strand binding him to his father and his eldest son. That recurring image of Jiro as a little boy with his father alongside that of Jiro and Yoshikayu behind the sushi bar.
This absence enriches the monastic quality of Jiro’s world. His ‘relentless’ pursuit of perfection, expressed daily in a thousand mundane rituals that include a subway commute to and from Ginza station, reinforce that idea. Jiro’s capacity for the routine is super human. The food writer Yamamoto acknowledges that the only change in 40 years at the restaurant is that Jiro quit smoking. His distaste for holidays, or any ‘real-life’ intrusion, is a profound demonstration of commitment but also hints at the obsessive underbelly that can mark its shadow.
Pushing the spiritual metaphor along is Jiro’s adherence to shokunin. We’re told repeatedly that his rigorous practice is not eccentric but rather neatly bound up in the principles of this Japanese philosophy. Practitioners use the improvement of technical skill to express a profound social and spiritual commitment. Yamamoto details the tenants, as they apply specifically to Jiro, in his ‘five attributes of a great chef’. Although here they are culturally specific, Yamamoto’s list would be familiar to any Michelin 3 star chef. Practice at this level is at once compelling and sensuous but not devoid of strangeness. All of the striving affords Jiro much in the way of professional esteem but the question lingers as to whether the practice is also a tool for escape. For Jiro it provides flimsy shelter from familial complexity.
This sheer abundance of sushi perfection is a foil for his humanity. Naïve admissions of schoolboy “bullying” lead to the more deeply confessional, and not surprising, claim of “not being much of a father”. Jiro takes possession of his young sons dreams in stating that he “let” them graduate high school but not continue on to college. His eldest son, Yoshikayu spends the first 2 years as a young apprentice at the restaurant hating the experience. His youngest son Takashi, freed to oversee a carbon copy establishment in Roppongi Hill, whose only nods to uniqueness are accommodation for being right handed (Jiro is left handed) and a lower price point so as not to be seen to compete. A soft-spoken former apprentice, Hachiro Mizutani, offers his own tyrannical view of Jiro. Hachiro’s expression of disrespect and hostility towards the celebrated master lends more ominous tones to Jiro’s admission that he trained his “sons more strictly than other apprentices”.
A lasting and deeply unsettling image that occurs very early in the film is that of his eldest son Yoshikayu stooped on a small stool outside the restaurant, in the subway hallway, toasting sheets of nori over a brazier. At well beyond middle age, Yoshikayu spends much of the documentary confirming Jiro’s views on shokunin and expressing, through words and actions, his own meta-commitment to “continue his fathers tradition”.
I was awash in discomfort when Jiro admonishes Yoshikayu, at his parent’s graves, to water over-dead flowers. Jiro’s capacity for detail betrays him here and we bear witness to a moment of great intimacy. The passage of time, rigorous practice, and tremendous success have failed to fully heal the deep wound dealt him at such a tender age. Here is Jiro’s crack. It’s unnerving to watch because he is old enough to have surrendered the struggle and to know that the gifts of his life would be naught without it. The love he was denied has been returned in incomprehensible manner and measure. Yet he persists alongside this familiar and ancient rage.
That Jiro was born with a gift and sushi making its manifestation is without question. His subconscious sends him dreams as proof. His talents return to him an abundance of love and acceptance. The admiration of many, including celebrated peers, act as salve to his early loss. Ritual holds at bay a hostile, unpredictable and unloving world. It comforts the very young boy who “no longer has a home to come back to”. When Jiro jumps from his bed at night with ideas for sushi he is really dreaming of love.
What remains unclear is whether Yoshikayu himself wakes with the same dream. That he will have a hard time transcending Jiro’s talent is astonishing in light of the fact that it was Yoshikayu himself who prepared sushi for the Michelin inspectors. Holding a son at mid-life in professional limbo, failing to have defined success for himself, is not that far removed from denying him a home. Jiro freely admits that at this stage his “job is the easiest”, that the sushi is 95% complete by the time it reaches him. Yet ancient fears of abandonment and love denied prevent him from fully loosening his grip.
But Yoshikayu does what Jiro could never do. He walks alongside his father allowing the generational passage to soften the story and heal the wound. His presence an assurance that Jiro has surpassed his own fathers skills. Yoshikayu could very well see the light that emanates from this familial crack. Jiro may have come into this life unloved but he will not leave it in the same state.