Monday, April 23, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (B-)

It's often difficult to distinguish the boundary line between genius and obsession, as the two are often linked so tightly they're almost identical. Intellectual genius in a certain subject matter might originate from childhood infatuation, the psychological necessity for absolute perfection, the inextinguishable desire to be the greatest at perhaps any craft, or any circumstance or hypothetical situation. Unless born with an abnormally high IQ, such high intelligence in nearly any profession requires a maximum effort, which can only be achieved with the drive of obsession. This slightly unfortunate necessary stepping stone for greatness works favorably for the artist's work, but can also internally deteriorate its host. The iconic Italian painter Michelangelo was so fixated by his art, he knowingly ignored any attempt of self-maintenance, bathing for example, in favor of continuing perfecting his craft. Speculation states his death may've came as result.

David Gelb's new documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi examines the daily life of Jiro Ono; an 85 year old man widely regarded as the world's greatest sushi chef. Still propitiating his esteemed restaurant in his elder years, Jiro, along with his staff, cook and examine the food with absolute attention to detail. A prime example of the neurotic care Jiro puts into the sushi would be with his octopus, which must be messaged an hour before slaughter to receive maximum flavor. A true culinary genius, Jiro states that during childhood he would have grand dreamlike visions of unique sushi, which inspired him to sharpen his cooking skills to the point where sushi dominated his entire life; and still does. He is incredibly strict with his staff, harshly critiquing their best efforts for multiple months or years, and places intense pressure on his older children to remain sushi chefs, claiming surrendering the job will tarnish the Ono legacy. He is a man more driven by obsession with sushi perfectionism than anything else, and it's this, rather than understanding how Jiro creates his masterful meals, that is the documentary's greatest asset. However, rather portraying this culinary icon as the tragic prisoner of his own neurosis, Gelb is more content on showing us the sushi's development and inevitable consumption. It's a severe disappointment which transforms the documentary from Hertzogian character study to a visually dazzling, yet slightly emotionally hallow, "Food Channel" TV special.

By choosing not to provide insight into Jiro's personal relationship with the food he so carefully prepares, the film runs an almost anemic 81 minutes; while still padded with unnecessary, though admittedly interesting tangents involving bit players in the sushi's creation. However, Gelb almost makes up for his lack of insight into Jiro with his stunning cinematography. Though a device used frequently throughout the film, Gelb uses montages set to classical music to show the staff's efforts in the kitchen. Showing the workers as metaphorical members of a culinary symphony, Gelb's camera slowly graces the room, capturing the kitchen's beauty, and the role of each individual worker as they go about their job. Using such gorgeous cinematography, it becomes easy to understand what helped originally bring Jiro to the point of sushi obsession.
Despite essentially being a large disappointment due to the director's focus on the sushi rather than the man behind it, Gelb utilizes the opportunity to capture the masterful process of Jiro through his beautiful cinematography. Though the film is filled with great eye candy, it's mostly a missed opportunity to capture a genius at work
Grade: B-

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