Sushi is the essence of Japanese cuisine. Many years ago it was far too expensive for most Japanese to eat, but since the end of the second world war fish farming has increased greatly and sushi has become popular in America and Europe, and with the advent of 100-yen sushi restaurants in Japan sushi is now affordable for everyone.
Jiro Ono is 85 and has been making sushi since he was ten years old. His restaurant is the only sushi restaurant in the world to have been given three Michelin stars. His sushi is certainly not the kind of sushi one might find spinning around on a coloured plate on a lonely conveyor belt in a shopping centre: no. It takes ten years to train as an apprentice of Jiro, and for good reason. Each individual piece of sushi is a handcrafted, taste-tested masterpiece. An apprentice, before he is even allowed to touch a piece of fish, must learn how to properly wring out a hot handtowel for the customers. It is a hard ten years for Jiro’s apprentices.
Let’s start with the rice. The rice, says Jiro, must be served at body temperature. No-one in all of Japan puts as much pressure on their rice as we do. The lid of the rice cooker is so heavy that it must be lifted with two hands. He laughs, because none of his competitors do this. In fact, Jiro laughs a lot. For someone who has never taken more than a day’s break from work in 75 years, his demeanour exudes a surprising amount of calm and relaxation. It is almost as if he *gasp* enjoys his job!
Then to the fish. Specifically tuna. Oh, the tuna. Jiro does not use just any old tuna for his sushi. Jiro goes to the fish auctions in Tokyo every day to buy the freshest, leanest tuna. Although, he says, the modern pallette is more assimilated to fatty tuna, it is the lean tuna which has the most subtle and intense flavours. The tuna is marinated for up to ten days, at which point it is deemed tender enough for one of Jiro’s sushi. And the octopus? Each piece of octopus must be massaged for up to an hour before it can be sliced and served. Tuna, Jiro laments, is so expensive these days, because of the fish shortage. Tuna are being farmed far too early. It takes 100 years for a tuna to grow to full size – but modern farming techniques farm every fish, the big and the small. If you don’t let a fish grow to full size you are encouraging a false economy. The fish are running out, and we need to be more stringent about which ones we can farm.
This is a story about fish, but also about family. Jiro’s two sons work for him at his restaurant, and have slowly but surely mastered Jiro’s art of sushi making, to the extent that Jiro himself entrusts 95% of the work to his elder son. Michelin have never actually eaten Jiro’s own sushi: every time it has been made by Yoshikazu, the elder son, and deemed perfect. The younger son broke free and opened his own restaurant, but the elder son, as expected of him in the Japanese familial hierarchy, remains at Jiro’s restaurant, waiting to take over from his father. Aged fifty, he is still waiting for his chance to shine. Jiro takes all the credit for his kitchen staff’s work, but Yoshikazu remains quietly confident that one day he too will have his moment.
It is certainly a working life different from other Japanese men. This film is not just an appreciation of good food; it is an insight into culture, a lamentation of the changing world, a life that will one day end and leave an enormous legacy – and a name which Japan will never forget.