Cinema Asian America: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ – A Conversation with Director David Gelb

by | August 14, 2012 at 9:03 AM | Cinema Asian America, Indie Film Club, Movies, Xfinity On Demand

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"

One of the year’s most talked-about documentaries that has moved and tantalized audiences world-wide premieres this month on Cinema Asian American on XFINITY On Demand.

Jiro Dreams 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 three-star Michelin Guide rating, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar.

Get “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on XFINITY On Demand.

A thoughtful and elegant meditation on work, family, and the art of perfection, director David Gelb’s film chronicles Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world and as a loving yet complicated father. (Adapted from www.magpictures.com)

How were you first introduced to Jiro Ono and his restaurant?

DG: While researching sushi chefs that might be subjects in my film, I was introduced to Jiro and his restaurant by the famed food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto.  At first I had wanted to make a film about a number of different chefs, but when I met Jiro I realized that a better film would be just about him.  Everything I wanted to convey about sushi and so much more could best be done through Jiro’s perspective.  I’m lucky that he wanted to participate in the film and am grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with him.

While “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” acts as a primer on sushi, it is also a meditation on grander themes: mortality, perfection and family. Can you talk a bit more about the ideas and questions that you wanted to explore through Jiro? 

DG: In “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” sushi is the setting, but it is a human journey.  The film is about Jiro’s unrelenting quest for perfection, its about family and succession, and its about a life of passion and never wanting to quit.  Jiro’s philosophy of working hard and always doing your best is something that applies to every craft and vocation.  Jiro’s son’s story of living in his father’s shadow is something that I personally relate to and I think a lot of people identify with.  Even though it is in a very unique setting, the themes and stories are universal.

Your film has an incredibly intimate quality to it; it captures not only the reverent space and tone of Jiro’s small restaurant as well as the complex dynamics between Jiro and his sons, whom he is looking to pass on his traditions to. A film crew is often quite conspicuous; how did you achieve this intimacy?

DG: The restaurant is very small, so I couldn’t have brought a crew with me even if I wanted to.  In order to fit and not disturb Jiro (and to keep costs down), I did almost everything in the production myself – from producing to directing to cinematography to sound recording.  The whole crew was just myself and a translator.  In order to make Jiro and his team comfortable with me, I didn’t even bring a camera with me for the first few days of shooting.  I just wanted to take the time to get know them and build a rapport.  Over time, as we got to trust each other more and more, the camera I was using would grow until I was shooting everything on the Red One digital cinema camera.  In documentary, building a relationship of trust with your subject is paramount.


See all Cinema Asian America interviews here.

There are many visually spectacular scenes of food preparation in the film; can you talk about some of the specifics of how you chose to shoot the many different ingredients and dishes being prepared from rice to tuna to the finished, plated sushi? Did you use a certain lighting or framing code to look at the food?

DG: The job of the director is to guide the audience’s perspective through the story.  When framing the sushi, I allowed just a specific part of the sushi to be in focus, the intention being to guide the audience’s eye to the most delicious part – the shimmer of silvery skin, the glisten of the fat of the toro, for example.  Framing and focus allow you to control how the audience looks at something.  I actually didn’t use any artificial lighting in the film.  I would simply place the subject of the shot in an area with good light.  My goal was to elevate all the cinematic elements of the film, from the cinematography to the music, to as close to Jiro’s level as possible.  I wanted to film to look like Jiro would have made it if he were a director:  elegant and simple.

What are you working on now?

DG: I’m developing on a number of projects – one of them is a documentary series involving chefs, and another is a narrative feature film that is something of a murder mystery.  My taste is pretty eclectic and I think I’ll be making a lot of different kinds of stuff in the coming years.