Tribeca 2011: Earthquake hovers over restaurant life in Japan

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The earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan have a way of casting a mournful shadow on all real-life stories from that country. Events that took place after the calamities are thrown against a dark backdrop, and even anything that happened before can take on the foreboding tone of a horror picture.

There’s no explicit mention of the crisis, even in a postscript, in ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ David Gelb’s low-key documentary about the most lauded sushi chef in all of Japan because it was filmed before disaster struck. Yet it’s impossible to avoid it. As much an inquiry into perfectionism as it is a piece of culinary tourism -- ‘It started out being about sushi’ before evolving into something else, Gelb said at a screening -- the movie follows its protagonist as he goes through the exacting paces of his life.

The octogenarian Jiro is a sort of more likable Soup Nazi, charging $300 and up for the main dishes at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his Michelin three-star Tokyo restaurant, dishes he has refined with rigorous technique over seven decades. He carefully selects the fish, attends expertly if unfussily to customers, visits old friends in his hometown village and also worries about his son, an up-and-coming chef who may one day take over the restaurant. No matter what Jiro does, though, we always wonder about where the recent disaster has left him.

Viewers at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the movie made its U.S. premiere Thursday evening, were wondering the same thing, asking Gelb after the screening about both Jiro’s well-being and the state of his restaurant in the wake of the crisis.


‘His hometown is fine,’ Gelb said. ‘The most profound effect is actually a psychological one -- a lot of people are canceling their plans to come to Tokyo. Restaurants like Jiro’s are a celebration. If you’re going to be spending $300 a person, it’s a celebration, and the mood for celebration has gone down.’ Gelb also said that the destruction of fisheries has limited the availability of what he can cook, further hurting business.

Gelb’s movie has a surprisingly contemplative side. Characters utter lines such as ‘a perfect union of rice and fish’ and ‘you’re consuming Jiro’s philosophy with every bite.’ But maybe the most striking aspect of the film, which was acquired several days ago by Magnolia Pictures and will soon head to theaters, is the main character’s stoicism, a kind of get-it-done even keel in the face of drama, an attitude that offers a larger reassurance about Japans ability to cope with crisis.

Of course, Jiro’s particular type of stoicism also comes with a certain lack of emotional expressiveness. As Gelb said of the hero’s reaction to watching the movie, ‘he’s not particularly effusive, so he’s not going to compliment me.’ Then he added wryly, ‘Just the fact that he didn’t disown the movie or denounce it publicly was a huge compliment to me.’


Photos: Tribeca Film Festival scene

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--Steven Zeitchik