The Grind of Perfection

by syaffolee

I first heard about the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, when it was mentioned by Anthony Bourdain (more on him in a future post) on one of his shows. It was only until now that I got around to watching it. Overall, as a documentary, I thought it worked very well. It was visually appealing and the director didn’t get in the way of the subject but it was also edited in a way that was quite focused. As a viewer, I came away with the appreciation that there are people out there who are obsessed with trying to obtain perfection in one thing although I don’t agree with the methods and philosophy behind that desire.

This isn’t about sustenance. It isn’t really about art either. Despite all the talk about creativity, I found very little of that here. The apprentices aren’t encouraged to experiment. They’re forced to perfect techniques. Sure, there’s food, but that’s incidental to Jiro’s quest for The Ideal. Jiro comes across as a stern, not particularly likeable person. People admire him for his skill with sushi, call him a master, given him Michelin stars. But his personal interactions? He’s dismissive of his own parents, his classmates call him a bully, his kids didn’t even recognize him when they were younger because he worked so much, and even his customers are nervous when they go to eat at his restaurant.

There’s a bit of pathos for his sons (especially his oldest) who seemed to be coerced into going into the sushi business despite their dreams for going to college and pursuing other occupations. A sympathetic critic remarked that Jiro’s sons have a tough road ahead of them since their father has reached such heights. They would have to be at least twice as good to be seen as their father’s equal. Even if they were equally as good, people (particularly other Japanese people), would still see them as inferior.

The more Japanese people I meet, the more I realize that their talk of being rebels or being different has a completely different point of reference than anyone else. Being a rebel means that they dared to deviate from their expected path by just a tiny bit. To a non-Japanese person, this sort of deviation is like saying you want to wear the brown socks today rather than the black ones you’ve been wearing for the past year. To outsiders, they would still appear to completely seeped in cultural traditions. Jiro “rebelled” by going into sushi rather than something a bit more practical, but otherwise, he seems like the typical workaholic Japanese man who doesn’t talk about his mother or his wife and is making his sons follow in his footsteps. Work is everything. Everything else is nothing. As the title to the documentary implies, even when he’s resting, he’s dreaming of work. He explicitly states that if he cannot work, then he is worthless.

Maybe it was in the way that this documentary was framed, but the subject came across as someone who would be rather difficult to get along with. I can see why other chefs would admire him. He has worked hard to achieve his distinctions. No one’s going to argue with that. But something still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Perhaps it’s the glorification of something that appears mindless and repetitive. Maybe my view of that marks me as a philistine, but I don’t particularly care. Pursing perfection is fine, but dedicating every waking moment of your life to it? I guess that’s where my notions of living a happy, productive life diverges from the film’s message.

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