REVIEW: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

6 12 2012

I know everyone has their own theories and preferences about what makes a good and cinematic documentary.  For me, after “Inside Job” led to a massive documentary binge, I developed a simple litmus test.  So simple, in fact, I can sum it up in two words: so what?

So what, I ask every documentary.  If you’ve taken the time to document a small piece of the world I live in, what am I supposed to take away from it?  How should this affect me?  If it passes with flying colors, put it on a screen and plop it in front of audiences.

If not, then perhaps it’s best meant for an obscure cable channel – or the entire project ought to be reconsidered and reevaluated.  After all, if you can’t convince an audience why something is important, why bother extending your efforts to make the fim at all?  (This test is entirely applicable to fictional and narrative film as well, but there are far more shades of grey in that realm.)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi” did not pass the test.  It has such a small and limited scope – 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono and his quest for perfection – that it especially needed a powerful so what.  It feels like an overlong and unfocused Travel Channel special, geared towards exposing a niche for sushi die-hards or travelers to Japan with its detailed portrayals of what it takes to run a competitive sushi restaurant, from purchase to preparation of the fish.  Give this film some commercial breaks as well as a slight dash of energy, and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” would be a fun program to stop on while channel surfing.

Director David Gelb has something in mind beyond the sushi, though; he wants to go deeper into Jiro’s character.  And I will grant Gelb that he does a great job at painting a complete portrait of a very peculiar perfectionist.  But he fails to bring the message of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” home for the audience on the other side of the screen.  We can’t learn anything from Jiro that our parents haven’t already ingrained in us at the age of five.  The taste buds activate in overdrive for the documentary, but the head and heart remain fairly disengaged.  B-