David Gelb's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi qualifies as triple-X food porn, but not just in the most obvious way. When you call something "(blank) porn," you're of course referring to its desirability: Would'ya look at that (dress, auto, food item)? But you're also saying something about its unavailability. Porn is all about the search for something you aren't getting. And in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the object of desire is a Platonic ideal of sushi, the kind that makes travelers plan trips in anticipation.
Palatable sushi is available anywhere, but I've never seen anything like the single-minded artistry on display in chef Jiro Ono's Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi bar tucked away in the drab locale of a Tokyo subway station. It serves nothing but sushi — no apps, no soups, nuthin' — in perfectly formed bites: one to a gleaming black plate, adorned with only a swift brush stroke of sauce.
Gelb watches the 85-year-old chef at work, flanked by his unassuming but clearly essential eldest son Yoshikazu, who quietly bides his time in the shadow of his father's reputation. For the doc's first half, the viewer feels like one of Jiro's apprentices: held at arm's length, not entirely trusted yet with the particulars. (An early duty consists of holding painfully hot towels; one associate describes cooking an egg dish 200 times before his exacting boss pronounced it usable — at which point the associate burst into tears of relief.) Spectacular dishes come and go with little identification, and procedures are watched closely but not explained.
What comes through strongly, though, is the chef's insistence on mastery through repetition — the only way to produce the consistency that lifted Sukiyabashi Jiro to a three-star Michelin rating, which is unprecedented for a restaurant of its kind and scale. The chef, revered by followers as the world's greatest, has spent a lifetime looking for the proper balance of taste and texture. And in the movie's most striking sequence, held back until late in the film, he finally explains the simple beauty found in the harmony of fish and vinegared rice in proper proportion, while Gelb catalogs the briny treasures we've seen throughout the film in showroom-ready displays.
I predict a lot of people are going to see and love Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but many of the conditions needed for Jiro's triumphs are unavailable here: most critically, oceanic markets with canoe-sized tuna, bristling fluorescent shrimp and other delicacies straight from the sea. That's what qualifies Jiro Dreams of Sushi as porn, I suppose. It sates your eyes, but leaves you aware that you're getting a placeholder for the real thing.