A spare, monkish figure in his eighties, Jiro Ono is widely regarded as the greatest living sushi chef; his basement restaurant in Tokyo – which seats just ten customers – consistently receives the highest possible Michelin rating. “There's no other three-star restaurant in the world like it,” says the food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto with almost proprietorial pride.
Understandably, the reverent atmosphere puts some visitors on edge; being served by the master himself must be a bit like sitting for an exam. Jiro is the definition of a perfectionist: after a lifetime of practice, he's still striving to improve, and has no plans to hand over the business to his middle-aged son.
More than just another food documentary, David Gelb's film has a strong central theme: what kind of effort is needed to remain a champion? It's an essentially static portrait, inevitably given that Jiro has been doing the same thing almost every day for forty years. There are hints this dedication has taken its toll on his personal relationships, though Gelb tells us nothing about his subject's unseen wife.
But psychology fades into the background as the film goes into fascinating detail about the rituals of sushi preparation: fanning the rice, massaging the octopus for texture, fiddling to get the little parcels just so. Frequent close-up montage sequences are accompanied by a soundtrack ranging from Bach to Philip Glass; when someone describes Jiro as “the conductor of an orchestra,” it's clear this metaphor has been implicit all along.