Jiro Dreams of Sushi dir. David Gelb (2011)

What is it about documentary as a medium that excites and interests us? Is it the chance to learn something about corners of the world, and the lives lived in them, which we otherwise wouldn’t get to? Is it the chance to be inspired by another’s accomplishment? Perhaps we hope to learn something about ourselves by learning about others.

David Gelb’s feature-length profile of master sushi chef (or ‘shokunin’) Jiro Ono has all of these strengths: at once a fascinating portrait of an artisan and a vivid glimpse of life amid Tokyo fish markets and restaurant culture.

Jiro, still running a restaurant at the age of 85, is the film’s mercurial centre. Softly spoken and delicately mannered he is a constant, still presence for most of his screen time. He speaks of himself with modesty and deprecation, and remains silent or displays good humour when others speak about him. A picture of Jiro’s values comes together fairly quickly: dedication, pride, the struggle towards perfection. He remembers the seating order of guests so that he can serve slightly smaller portions to the women, ensuring that everyone finishes their courses at the same time. During the first course he notices guests' handedness and adjusts the placement of food on their plate for the next course as necessary.

What makes the film so compelling is watching how these traits have shaped Jiro’s life and the lives of those around him. His sons, both shokunin in their own right, display genuine admiration for their father but are also mindful of the weight of his reputation. Through this lens Gelb teases out some interesting facets of Japanese family life; he does a wonderful job of making the film’s handful of locations a staging ground for a lot of personal exposition: the sushi master, his sons, and his apprentices all revealed amid the web of familial, professional, and societal forces that bind them. At the periphery there is also the tuna merchant and the rice dealer, kindred spirits to Jiro similarly immersed in the minutiae of their respective trades. We are also afforded a glimpse into Jiro’s past - a difficult childhood; a bad reputation at school - which entreats us to wonder how it informed the man that he became.

Gelb’s film is impressively balanced. It is not an easy task to bring the viewer into an unfamiliar culture, to introduce them to its nuances and the characters within it, and at the same time to construct a detailed, intimate picture of one man. Expert editing keeps this world in motion whilst displaying a flawless instinct for when the viewer will benefit from savouring details. David Gelb also served as the film’s cinematographer, and his delight in the aesthetics of what Jiro and his team are creating is unmistakeable. Slow-motion photography of fine ingredients and graceful culinary processes vary the film’s pace and allow us to immerse ourselves in the day-to-day activity of Jiro’s world: ruby slabs of tuna, sheets of nori hand toasted over an open flame, the correct amount of time to massage an octopus to ensure that it is tender and flavourful.

Whether you’re looking to understand more about the tradition of sushi restaurants, or you’re seeking to be inspired by the story of an exceptional individual Jiro Dreams of Sushi has a lot to offer. Every aspect of the film is superbly crafted and the manner in which it handles the various layers of its subject is ceaselessly compelling. As well as new understanding you will likely come away with new questions, and perhaps that is the documentary medium’s greatest strength of all.