Almost everything about Jiro Ono is unassuming. The 85-year-old master sushi chef and subject of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, one of just 81 restaurants in the world to achieve a three-star rating from the Michelin Guide (as of 2009, says Wikipedia).
You wouldn't guess you were in such rarefied air by looking around his restaurant. In fact, the only clue you might get that you were someplace special is if you sat down at the bar to order some maguro and were told to come back in a month, when one of the 10 seats at his restaurant is next available. Even this seems an unlikely scenario, since most people don't usually stumble into high-rise buildings and start sniffing around for world-class cuisine.
Jiro was meant to make sushi, and ever since he left home at a young age that's pretty much what he's been doing -- trying to perfect his craft even though he knows such a thing isn't really possible. There is a right way to cook rice and soak the tuna in vinegar and massage the octopus at Sukiyabashi Jiro, as all of his protegees on staff must learn.
One of those protegees is his oldest son, Yoshikazu, who one day will take over the restaurant. It's a task that seems as thankless and monumental as replacing Babe Ruth in the Bronx. And it's one that you'd fixate on a whole lot more if you weren't simultaneously licking your lips at the borderline gratuitous shots of sushi being prepared (often in slow-motion and set to classical music) as Jiro dispenses bits of wisdom and wondering how someone with such a monastic devotion to sushi had any time to get married and have kids too.
For an 81-minute documentary about a restaurant that could barely seat the Supreme Court, there's a surprising amount to unpack. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is many things at its core -- food porn, a portrait of genius bordering on madness, an unwitting celebration of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Secret of Success, a simple father-son tale, a meditation on the burden of a great legacy being handed down to the next generation.
I don't think Jiro Dreams of Sushi ever delivers completely on any of those things, except for the food porn of course. If you love or even like sushi, account for the fact that you'll probably be sidling up to the nearest sushi bar soon after you finish watching this movie. Anyway, it's OK that that's the way it ends up, even if you are left with, oh, a few million questions about everything in Jiro's world. After all, this is a documentary. Jiro isn't malleable in the way that, say, Ken Watanabe playing a brilliant sushi chef would be. I suppose director David Gelb could have cut things in a different way, or picked out just one of those themes and then pressed his subjects to give him more in that particular area.
That might have made Jiro Dreams of Sushi a more satisfying film, but it probably wouldn't have been as true to Jiro -- the sketchy outline of his spectacularly interesting world would have been rendered that much more incomplete. Spend some time with Jiro, and you'll want to know more, yes, but you'll also be glad to know as much as you already do.