The film Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows sushi master Jiro Ono, whose Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station, is the first of its kind to earn three Michelin stars. For his unparalleled skill and relentless perfectionism, he's considered by many to be the best sushi chef in the world, though at 86 years old people are beginning to wonder how long he can continue to work.
The first documentary feature from 28-year-old director David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a portrait of true craftsmanship, as well as love and legacy. It relishes in sweeping shots around the kitchen and tight portraits of fish, the kinetic energy of preparation and the beautiful if momentary stillness of the finished product. The art and philosophy of a perfect bite.
A little more than a week in advance of his Los Angeles opening — March 16 at the Nuart — Gelb took some time to talk with Squid Ink about the mechanics of making eel dissection look elegant, the importance of rice and how he talked his way into a tuna auction.
Squid Ink: What was your intention for the movie? How did you find your subject?
David Gelb: Ever since I was a kid I've been eating sushi. My dad used to take me to Japan with him on his business trips, and those were very special meals we had; they just stuck with me. And I've always thought of a sushi chef as being such an interesting personality. They're kind of like a modern-day samurai in a way. They have their sword and their uniform. They're custom making a meal for you right in front of you. So I've always been into that sort of sushi chef mystique.
Then when I had the idea to make the film, I was going to focus maybe on three or four different sushi chefs, and I wanted to make it sort of like BBC's Planet Earth series, with beautiful photography and music and slow-motion footage. That was kind of the feeling I was going for. But when I met Jiro, I was really amazed not only at how good the sushi was but how interesting a person he is. And the same with his sons. I realized there was an interesting story here. That I could make a film about more than just sushi but about life and family and succession. And the philosophy of a genius, really.
SI: I read that [the Japanese food critic] Yamamto was the one that led you to Jiro. How did you get hooked up with Yamamoto?
DG: I met Yamamoto through my father, who knew him through a translator my dad works with in Japan. This translator worked with me a great deal. And Jiro as well. Yamamoto is a fascinating person. He's kind of like a sushi poet. He describes sushi in a way that is unlike anything I've ever heard, so I really wanted to capture his perspective and put it in the movie.
I also owe him for convincing Jiro to allow me to make the film because he and Jiro are very good friends. Yamamoto has been a huge advocate of this restaurant. And so the idea of the sushi concerto, where the sushi comes out in three movements and all these musical metaphors that work so effectively, cinematically, come from Yamamoto's own experience and imagination.
SI: I was going to ask you about that. One of my favorite parts of the movie was this sushi concerto sequence, with its long and loving portraits of sushi and the way the camera just seemed to dance around the kitchen while the chefs prepare the fish. Was that something you found in the editing room or was it inspired by Yamamoto's metaphor?
DG: Well, I think it's a combination. I knew that I wanted orchestral music from the beginning, and Yamamoto really furthered that with his description of the tasting course. But the editing was where everything really came together because we didn't really know which piece [of music] we were going to use for the concerto scene.
I have a fantastic editor named Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer. He's done a lot of work on music videos, so he's very strong with music. He really lent his artistry to the movie in a big way, especially in those music-heavy montages.
SI: Yeah, I don't think I've ever seen an eel dissection look so elegant. My other favorite scene was at the Tsukiji fish market, for the tuna auction. I was really blown away by the movement of the camera, which I understand you did yourself?
DG: Yeah, I was the cinematographer. The crew was really just myself and my translator. I wanted to have the smallest footprint I could and not disrupt Jiro's routine or the routines of any of the artisans in the film. But on that day I hired a Steadicam crew — a focus puller and a very talented Steadicam operator. We just kind of shot everything that we could to try to capture the frenzy of the market. You really need camera movement to do that.
SI: It came through as so kinetic, especially with the music. Can you talk a little bit about your music choices?
DG: What motivated the music in that fish market scene was really the sound of the bell. It reminded me of another documentary that I really like. Really an unconventional documentary because there's no talking in it at all, called Baraka.
SI: Baraka: non-narrative, nature doc, right?
DG: Yeah, I was really inspired by it. And that song from the market is actually in Baraka. So we took that and sort of used the ringing of the bells to bring in this African drum song that works well with the organized chaos that defines the fish market. So all the music is chosen to be a reflection of what you're seeing on screen. For example the Philip Glass music we use is repetitive but always escalating and building, like Jiro's work ethic, which is always repeating but always looking for that one extra step of improvement.
SI: Can you tell me a little bit more about the translation process? I presume you don't speak Japanese…
DG: The language barrier was the single biggest challenge of the film. I speak a little bit of Japanese. What I can say I say with good pronunciation, and I'm always trying to learn new words. I think Jiro and [Jiro's son and successor] Yoshikazu appreciate and respect the effort. My translator was a young woman named Shino, who has a really great personality, and she formed a really good rapport with them herself. So the four of us together were sort of able to develop this rapport [through Shino] even though we weren't able to understand each other literally. But by the end of it, it felt like real conversation. Even with my broken Japanese and hand gestures, we were able to communicate pretty well.
We were also able to have Yamamoto come in and do some of the interviews using questions I had written. And they're such good old friends that it was easy for Jiro to speak in a relaxed and candid manner.
Then we had do the translation in post-production and go through about 150 hours of footage with a team of incredibly talented translators. And that was a very time-consuming and expensive endeavor, but the journey is the destination. That's what we learned from Jiro. Even if it's hard, you have to do it methodically, and there are no short cuts.
SI: In your personal experience, what is the difference between sushi in the United States and sushi in Japan?
DG: It's the rice. It makes a really big difference — and there are very few sushi restaurants in the United States that understand that the rice is just as important as the fish. Sushi is about the combination of fish and rice and finding the balance between them. It requires a lot of skill in terms of its preparation, the correct amount of vinegar mixture and the temperature at which you're steaming it. Same with the fish. Every single fish has a unique process that goes into getting it to its ideal flavor, whether they're heating the fish or marinating it — they all factor in to creating the perfect bite. It takes years and years to develop the intuition to look at a fish and figure out what it will take to bring it to its ideal state of deliciousness.
There's a lot more to it than fish and rice.
SI: There were so many experts in the movie. Specialists whose whole job was to work with an ingredient. The rice guy, in particular, stands out to me, but there's also the guy who does just tuna. And I don't know if we have many of those. Perhaps that's one of our disadvantages.
DG: A big difference is that for these craftsmen, it's not profitable to only sell fish. But they don't care. All they want to do is good work; they're not in it for the money. And yes, it's a big difference between what you have in Japan and what you see in the United States. Here, I think it's a bit more profit-centric.
SI: The last thing I wanted to ask you was how you got access to the fish market — I understand it's very difficult to do.
DG: It was very difficult. Specifically the tuna auction was very tough. And it's all about persistence and building trust. So on my first trip to Japan in January 2010, they wouldn't even let me in there. It was just a flat “no.” And then when I came back in August I had made a few more friends, and some of the people who buy and sell fish there had become supporters of the film. They really wanted the movie to be made so they helped me lobby the tuna auction to allow me to go in. We had to pay a fee and I had to speak with various members of the fish market and convince them that this was a film about the artistry not only of Jiro but of the people behind the scenes who make Jiro's sushi possible.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi opens Friday, March 16, at the Nuart Theater: 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.