Jiro Dream of Sushi
Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Story : JIRO DREAM of SUSHI is the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious 3 star Michelin review. For most of his life, Jiro has been mastering the art of making sushi, but even at his age he sees himself still striving for perfection, working from sunrise to well beyond sunset to taste every piece of fish; meticulously train his employees.
Interview with Director David Gelb
(Q) : How's Jiro? What's happening? Are you in touch with them?
(David Gelb) : Yeah, we've been in touch and it's business as usual at the restaurant.
(Q) : So he's still actually making sushi?
(David Gelb) : Yeah, he's still making sushi. They're dealing with a bad economy, kind of an atmosphere of uncertainty, so customers are not coming to the restaurant as much as they used to. And this is for all restaurants, all very expensive restaurants in Japan, because people are being a bit more conservative with their money I think. And also, sushi is such a celebration and the celebratory mood is probably only now returning. I don't know if that's the vibe in Tokyo.
(Q) : In fact, the Japanese tourism people, they're really ramping it up trying to get people over there. How is the distribution in Japan? I heard that your documentary aired on TV. Am I wrong?
(David Gelb) : You know I don't know. To be honest, I don't know. That's a surprise to me.
(Q) : Well bring us up to date on you since we last hung out. It's been six months.
(David Gelb) : Yes, it's been six months and I have a company that does movie trailers called City Room Creative. And so I've been hard at work on that and also I'm developing a script with a good friend of mine who's writing it. It's a murder mystery set in New York, so my next project is going to be something completely different.
(Q) : I remember although you loved food and you knew a bit about food and you've been to nice restaurants thanks to family associations and whatnot, you weren't an expert as a culinary person. Have you become more culinary oriented or less?
(David Gelb) : I guess I'm a pedantic really. I'm no expert on cooking or sushi. I just know what I like.
(Q) : Still seafood?
(David Gelb) : Yeah I still love sushi. My love of sushi has not diminished by any means.
(Q) : Jiro is a very stoic guy. How was he when he was off camera? Because we capture pretty much how he treats the staff members and everything but how was he off camera?
(David Gelb) : I would say it's sort of like there are two Jiros. There's Jiro the sushi shokunin who's standing behind the sushi bar and is very austere, as you said. He doesn't really make jokes or make small talk behind the sushi bar. But as soon as the restaurant closes and he's finished serving and he relaxes he's a very funny, nice guy. Incredibly kind and very interested in whoever he's talking to. He's just a very nice guy, really. You see a little bit in the film of that. In some of the more intimate interviews you can see his sense of humor kind of coming through when he talks about his family. And that's really kind of the Jiro behind the scenes.
(Q) : How about his acknowledgement of the politics or arts?
(David Gelb) : His hobbies, he loves pottery, so he's made some of the cups and bowls that they serve. He didn't make the plates that they serve the sushi on but he made some of the teacups and things like that and it's sort of a hobby of his. He used to love skiing, he doesn't do it anymore.
(Q) : So he's 85 now?
(David Gelb) : 86. I think he’s about to turn 87.
(Q) : You hope we’re in such good shape at that age, right?
(David Gelb) : Yeah, well he’s not skiing now. And you know he’s a very knowledgeable person. He’s very interested, very curious about the world.
(Q) : How are the sons?
(David Gelb) : The sons are good. Again, they work very hard, business is tough. It’s an uphill battle for them because not only are we having economic problems, but also the quality of the fish was already a problem and now it’s even worse.
(Q) : Have you been back to Japan?
(David Gelb) : I haven’t, but I’m planning on going this summer.
(Q) : Just for the hell of it?
(David Gelb) : Yeah, just to visit them. I haven’t seen them since we completed the movie and so I just want to go and visit everybody that appeared in the film and bring them gifts and just thank them.
(Q) : When you do a Q&A how different is the Japanese audience from the American audience in terms of the things they might ask you and the things that they’re curious about?
(David Gelb) : It’s not that different. I would say that the Japanese American audience members tend to have a little bit more of a background on sushi. The Americans, their questions are a bit more simple. And I don’t mean to insult American questions or anything like that, because I am one. But yeah the Japanese tend to ask questions that are a bit more in depth because they just have a little bit more of a knowledge of what sushi originally is, whereas Americans are introduced to sushi as being kind of these inside out cut rolls and California rolls and things like this. So they’re saying “Oh, he only makes the fish on top of the rice, the nigiri sushi.” A lot of Americans also tend to think that it’s just fish on rice. “Why is this so expensive?” is a big question that I get from Americans.
(Q) : They don’t understand that maki is kind of like the McDonald’s of sushi.
(David Gelb) : A lot of it is, yeah.
(Q) : Speaking of expensive, how do you compare the sushi that it’s charging the same price in Japan, how do you compare that in your mind? The price might be totally different but at the same time it’s the same process to prepare. I was wondering what’s your take on that.
(David Gelb) : The sushi restaurants that I go to in the United States, generally the prices may be $120 at the most for an omakase. I’ve never been to Masa, which is the most expensive Japanese restaurant in New York, and I also have not been to Urasawa, which is the most expensive one in Los Angeles.
(Q) : Oh so Masa is the most expensive.
(David Gelb) : I’m pretty Masa is the most expensive.
(Q) : I think it’s the one in Columbus Circle.
(David Gelb) : Yeah, that’s the one in Columbus Circle, and you know what, I haven’t been there.
(Q) : They book it like a couple months ahead.
(David Gelb) : It’s right near Per Se, right, it’s right across from Per Se.
(David Gelb) : Yeah, and I just haven’t been there I think simply because it’s so incredibly expensive, and I’m able to find quite good sushi in New York and Los Angeles that’s at a more reasonable price. I think that at Masa I hear that you can spend an extra $60 on a small Kobe beef thing or something like this, and I want to go to a restaurant that is focusing only on sushi as much as possible.
(Q) : Yeah Masa is other things.
(David Gelb) : All kind of everything from kaiseki to all kinds of stuff. In the United States I think that restaurants like Sushi Yasuda, which I absolutely adore, and 15 East, I think that these are good values. They’re getting their fish from some of the best fish that they can from Japan and from other places as well.
(Q) : Is it better from the West Coast than the East Coast?
(David Gelb) : I think that the dollar value of sushi on the West Coast is generally better. It’s actually a bit less expensive for some reason or another. Also, on the West Coast they serve two pieces for order and on the East Coast for the same price you’re getting just one piece. Which is more kind of the edomae style is in New York, and actually it seems like in California there’s more of a kansai style sushi where they’re using ponzu sauce and more varied flavors. It’s interesting; I’m not sure why there’s a difference.
(Q) : You do want to try different pieces. If you eat in LA you have certain pieces. Just if you want to order five different pieces that’s already 10 pieces.
(David Gelb) : It’s true.
(Q) :When you’re making a movie about Japanese culture sometimes it makes you think how different you are, sometimes you find out how much alike, sometimes you want to assimilate some aspects in your life, some ways you might react otherwise.
(David Gelb) : I got it. When working on this movie I think I found out a lot more about how I want to be, and I think that especially in the editing process and listening to Jiro’s philosophy and the way that he leaves, the editor, Brandon, and myself, we found ourselves basically trying to do what he does. And that involves a lot of repetition in terms of breaking down the movie and rebuilding it. Not on a daily basis, it takes a couple weeks to build the film, but essentially we were taking Jiro’s advice to really kind of honestly appraise the work that we’re doing and trying not just be 75% okay with it, but getting up into the 90%, if that makes any sense.
(Q) : When we talked to you before had your dad seen the film?
(David Gelb) : Yeah, he saw it at the Tribeca premier.
(Q) : How does he feel about it now? Is he glad to see that this is really turning into something?
(David Gelb) : He’s thrilled. He’s hoping that I won’t borrow money from him anymore, but that’s probably not going to happen.
(Q) : And he’s not worried you might threaten to make a movie about him?
(David Gelb) : Oh no. He wouldn’t let me do it. But he’s incredibly proud and he was a big influence on me for sure. And also he was the first person to say “You have to make the movie just about Jiro,” which I agreed with and I discovered that on my own, but he was one of the first persons to tell me to focus it on being a single subject documentary.
(Q) : What I like about this movie is how he expresses his philosophy without giving a message or anything. It’s just that’s how he believes. Did he surprise you in many ways when you were actually filming? Was there any philosophy that you learned besides what’s in the film?
(David Gelb) : Probably the most surprising thing to me was the emphasis on repetition and the way that they try to improve gradually. It isn’t like they have a test kitchen where they’re trying radical new styles of preparing the fish or anything like that. It’s all just a very kind of gradual evolution. The recipes, the sushi that he serves he’s been developing these specific fish preparations for such a long time. And so I just think that the fact that he’s on the pinnacle, the cutting edge of sushi but using these techniques that he’s been developing for all these years, it’s both classic and modern at the same time and I think it’s very interesting.
(Q) : And you could apply it to other things.
(David Gelb) : Everything that Jiro says you can apply to everything, to every art.
(Q) : So you’re going to be doing like “The Art of War,” or one of those books out of Jiro? The Musashi?
(David Gelb) : Well if Musashi was alive that would be a very interesting documentary I think. But there is a Jiro of war, I mean it came out before this movie and I think the movie “The Fog of War” was a huge influence on this film. I think that what makes a documentary compelling is when you tell the story from the perspective of somebody who has a very unique point of view and a very important point of view. And I think Robert McNamara, you can say what you want about him, some people like him and some people hate him, but you can’t deny how compelling his perspective is.
(Q) : Well one of the things I like about a documentary like this is it’s not something you would see being made into a fiction film. The documentary approach is intrinsic to this kind of film, just like “The Fog of War” is that. You can make some documentaries into a feature film but this is not, and that’s good.
(David Gelb) : I think one of the reasons for that also is that we’re taking the audience on a journey through, it’s not that it’s static exactly, but the story is sort of a journey revealing information in a way that it becomes a story of what we’re doing.
(Q) : It’s obviously really hard to gain trust. How did you immerse yourself into that culture to gain trust? And if I may add to that, and what did you learn in gaining his trust that you’re going to apply in the future?
(David Gelb) : Well I think it’s about patience. That’s how you gain their trust is by being very patient. The first couple days that I was there, after Yamamoto went through great pains to convince Jiro, because my dad used to produce documentaries and there are a number of cases that Yamamoto made to Jiro san that would get him to allow me to do it. But the first couple days I didn’t even bring a camera with me and I was just there and observing. I’m already a foreign presence; if I had a camera then I’d be twice as distracting.
So it was just a matter of kind of being very patient and just observing and basically establishing a mutual trust. And then once we had this basic trust where they weren’t distracted by just my bare presence then I brought in a very small camera, and then as the trust continued then I got a larger camera. I sort of became part of the team in a way. We would have breakfast together all the time and be like “Oh, it’s just the camera guy. It’s fine.”
(Q) : But no knife?
(David Gelb) : No, if it takes 10 years to start cooking the egg.
(Q) : One of the things that is interesting, actually what’s interesting and coming back and talking to you further is sort of a similar thing, like we feel like we have a certain level of trust. So I’m thinking of things that will challenge you but at the same time will fit into the larger picture. What’s interesting in getting to see a person as they evolve is how they go through the process of the media. And have you learned anything in doing all this media stuff, how you would have changed or thought of it differently, or things that you’ve now learned that you apply for future films? Is there a lesson to be learned from the process of how people perceive it and come back to you and perceive the experience?
(David Gelb) : People find a lot of things in the movie that I didn’t necessarily realize. When I was making the film I was just doing what felt right, but in talking to guys like you I’ve actually learned a lot about the reasons why these things are working. So when it comes to why did I shoot the sushi in a specific way, well I don’t know, I guess it just looks good. But then after having to explain that over and over again, or try to explain it, I’ve actually realized why these things are actually working. So it’s helped me to kind of intellectualize what I’ve already done.
(Q) : I keep always trying to argue that we’re going to make you better filmmakers by talking to us.
(David Gelb) : Yeah, so maybe now I’d be better at explaining to another director how I would want a movie.
(Q) : Or to a subject.
(David Gelb) : Sure, absolutely.
(Q) : Now you’re making a fiction film, and it sounds about as contrasting as possible from this. One of the things I’ve learned from documentary filmmakers, some documentary filmmakers enjoy revisiting their turf for one reason or another. They’ve learned something. A good example, Steve James. Like “The Interrupters.” Even though he did the basketball film “The Interrupters” is definitely an extension of sort of his. And then other people want to go as far afield from what they did the last time and want to do something that’s radically different. Obviously, on the surface it sounds like you’re going the very opposite, but do you see things that you’ve drawn from this experience that will be throughout your filmmaking, or do you feel the need to sort of show that you can do something entirely different? Where does that put you?
(David Gelb) : I don’t actually see myself as a documentary filmmaker. I mean I’ve only made one movie and it’s a documentary, but that’s because the opportunity presented itself, and in a documentary you only need basically one person to shoot it, one or two people. So you can have a very small crew and it’s a very low risk kind of situation. I just want to make things that I want to watch, that I’m interested in watching. I was always interested in sushi and I never saw a beautifully shot sushi thing ever, actually. On Food TV you don’t see things like that. It’s all kind of more of a reality camera with a lot of zooming and very handheld.
That’s a whole different style and so I just thought this would be cool to make kind of the “Planet Earth” of sushi was sort of the original idea I think I told you guys before. And then when it comes to now making this new movie it’s just that I really want to see, I mean I love the movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” and I want to see something that’s kind of like that but very different at the same time. I’m just interested in sort of this murder horror mystery kind of thing right now.
(Q) : The other side that I see happening to documentary filmmakers is sometimes they find that in making the film they’ve found their passion in the subject. You obviously haven’t become a chef, you obviously have not become a food documentarian, but that does happen to some people. It’s interesting because I interviewed a guy and he made a movie because it was about a personal philosophy so he needed to make the movie because no one was going to make it if he didn’t make it. It’s interesting to talk to documentary filmmakers because documentaries affect people a little differently than I think making feature films and fiction films because there is that connection to the subject. Do you every think you’ll revisit this subject? Either the Japanese side or the food side?
(David Gelb) : Sure. The other reason I made “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is because I just love eating sushi and I love just being there, being part of the Tokyo insider sushi culture and just eating well all the time and hanging out with these guys which I think is amazing. They’re incredibly lively, exciting people. So I love Spanish food also, so if there is an opening or an opportunity to hang out in Spain and eat Spanish food and you just happen to be filming a very interesting chef there I’d definitely be open to that. It’s about the experience I think. I want to make something that’s cool that people are going to want to watch, but I also just want to enjoy the experience of making it.
(Q) : In this film how get the audience divided for the sushi connoisseur or just a beginner type of thing. How do you decide on how much you show for the connoisseur?
(David Gelb) : In the editing we wanted to make sure that the sushi information that we include in the film all has to be rooted, is about developing the character. So we talk about the rice in detail because that’s a reflection of Jiro, that’s an extension of his character is that he wants the rice to be perfect. And at the same time I think it’s also important to talk about rice because that’s the most basic thing that Americans do not understand about sushi is that the rice is just as important and it’s about balance between the fish and the rice. And also talking about Toro versus Akami.
That Akami actually has more flavor than toro but Westerners just love the taste of fat. And so we just try to reveal kind of these basic things. But we wanted to make sure the movie wasn’t too dry. We basically wanted to make it accessible to somebody who had never even eaten sushi before. But on the DVD we have a lot more details. So we have a big special features and deleted scenes section and it’ll have all of the much more kind of detailed, nitty gritty about the sushi preparation and the culinary aspects of it.
(Q) : And when is the DVD likely to be out?
(David Gelb) : I’m not sure, but we are coming out in theaters March 9. Whatever the standard window is I think it’ll come out after that.