Haunted by the Beauty of Perfect Sushi

Last week my wife and I finally watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about Jiro Ono, considered by many as the greatest sushi chef in the world. He is recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is a tiny sushi bar in the cellar of an office building seating no more than 10 people. Despite it’s small size and limited menu (Jiro Ono serves nothing but sushi), Sukiyabashi Jiro has received 3 Michelin Stars. Jiro Dreams of Sushi captures the beauty of Jiro’s sushi with epic cinematic angles and grandiose classical music while telling the story of one man’s unusual drive to perfect his craft. I left the film haunted by the beauty of the perfect sushi I am unlikely to ever taste. I was also haunted by the madness driving Jiro Ono’s genius.

Culinary Perfectionism

Jiro Ono is a perfectionist. His genius comes from an octogenarian’s experience, the work ethic of an orphan with something to prove, a keen sense of smell, and a love for sushi that borders insanity. As the title of the film suggests, he dreams of sushi. He literally wakes up in the middle of the night with visions of sushi.

Jiro Ono’s passion, imagination, and dedication is evident in every stage of his preparation. The small scale of his sushi bar gives him the freedom to pick the most exclusive ingredients every morning. Every day Jiro sets the menu for a 15 course meal based on that day’s catch. Each meal lasts about 20 minutes. Jiro Ono serves each sushi at the perfect moment and temperature. He customizes the size of each morsel to help his patrons eat at his pace.

Just looking at his sushi makes me almost weep. I thought I knew good sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi opened up a world of high grade sushi that I never knew existed.

The Cost of Excellence

A meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro starts at ¥30,000 (rougly $300). But there are also intangible costs to enjoying Jiro Ono’s culinary genius. Jiro Ono’s customers consistently say that eating at his sushi bar makes them nervous. Mr. Ono stares at his customers while they eat his food. Some of his regulars are so intimidated by Mr. Ono that they have taken their business to his son’s restaurant on the other side of town, where the food is slightly inferior but the atmosphere is more relaxed.

The customers are not the only ones paying for perfect sushi. Mr. Ono trains his apprentices for free, but he demands that they give him a ten year commitment. One of his apprentices tells the story of how he learned to make egg sushi. It took him four years. After thousands of failed attempts one day Mr. Ono told him that his egg sushi was good. He broke down and cried.

Many of those closest to Mr. Ono believe that he should hand over his business to his eldest son, Yoshikazu, who has been groomed to succeed his father ever since he was a teenager. Yoshikazu wanted to go to college but Mr. Ono convinced his son to work for him at the sushi bar instead. One Japanese food critic believes that Yoshikazu’s sushi will have to be twice as good just to be considered equal to Jiro’s.

As much as I enjoyed watching Jiro Ono at work, I couldn’t help asking myself if the cost of making the world’s best sushi is too high.

How many Michelin Stars is Enough?

In his insightful review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi Roger Ebert expressed how attracted he was to Jiro Ono’s sushi yet repulsed by Jiro Ono’s life. “You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and never will be, four stars.”

Beneath the beauty of his amazing sushi Jiro Ono seems to have a hollow life. Abandoned by his parents at the age of 9, he started with nothing. In his pursuit of greatness he sacrificed everything. At the pinnacle of his craft he remains unsatisfied.

Jiro Ono sacrificed everything to reach this point in his life. When they were younger his children did not recognize him. We know that he married when he was young but his wife is completely absent from his story. In one poignant moment Mr. Ono visits his parents’ grave with his eldest son, Yoshikazu, and blurts out, “I don’t know why I’m here. They were never there for me.” Even after everything he has accomplished the sight of his parents’ grave reduces him to the abandoned 9 year old orphan of his past. He thought that greatness would compensate for the hurts of his past but it was not enough.

Even as he pushes 90 Jiro Ono refuses to retire. Sushi is his life. What will he dream of when there is no more sushi? He is pursuing a non-existent fourth Michelin Star.

The Fourth Michelin Star

Greatness did not make Jiro Ono kinder or happier; it made him more critical and unsatisfied. It’s ironic that one of the world’s best chefs would make one of the world’s worst dinner guests. Mr. Ono criticizes his competition, his sons, his apprentices, even his guests. I would love to eat Jiro Ono’s sushi, but I would hate to have him over for supper.

I think the thing that bothers me most about Jiro Ono is that he reminds me of myself. I have not achieved his greatness; nevertheless something inside me whispers that I am only as great as my achievements. I am rarely sadder than when I am disappointed with one of my sermons. I am consistently my worst critic. I also make a terrible parishioner. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to other people preach. Rather than simply enjoy the Word of God as life-giving nourishment, I can’t help critiquing the pastor’s interpretation, delivery, or tone.

The paradox of the gospel is that the fourth Michelin Star only belongs to guests. Throughout the Bible the happiest people are the ones who have figured out that they have a place at the table of God. The Lord’s Supper is not a meal for chefs; it is a meal for patrons. At the Communion Table Jesus declares that our greatness does not depend on our achievements; it depends on His achievements.

Think about what the Lord’s Supper says about you. No meal is more costly than the Lord’s Supper; but Jesus’ picks up the tab. God thinks so much of you that He sacrificed Himself on the cross. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus declares that you are not defined by your success or failure but by God’s rich and free grace. God fulfills and exceeds all our dreams in Christ.

I need to be haunted by the beauty of the cross. The cross sets me free from dreaming about getting greatness and inspires me to dream about what to do with greatness. What will I do with the greatness Jesus has already given me in the cross? How can I share it? How can I spread joy to others? How can I build others up? How can I use it to glorify Jesus?

Are you haunted by the beauty of perfect sushi? What are the beautiful things that haunt you? How has the cross changed your dreams?


About David Lee

I am the pastor of New Life Mission Church of Fremont meeting in Newark, CA. I live in Fremont with my wife and three children. In my former life I was a history teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont. I love watching and discussing movies (but not at the same time), playing board games, hiking, visiting local cafes, and watching and complaining about (at the same time) Bay Area sports.
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4 Responses to Haunted by the Beauty of Perfect Sushi

  1. Jake says:

    Why did this review for a movie about a Japanese legend turn into a Christian discussion?

    Jiro is great because he is never satisfies. That is the only way to become a master at your craft.

    • David Lee says:

      Thanks for stopping by to read this post Jake. Is it uniquely Christian to question the imbalanced life depicted in the film? Roger Ebert is not a Christian and he was deeply troubled by Jiro’s obsessive pursuit of non-existent satisfaction. Can we admire Jiro for his genius yet still feel uncomfortable about the life he’s chosen for himself and for his family? Can we enjoy a movie like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” for its beauty and artistry and still question whether “mastery” and “greatness” are enough to make life meaningful?

  2. Michael says:

    It’s interesting. Jiro Ono is really looking for that word of approval that Jesus received at his baptism – you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased. But when we are in Christ, we receive the ultimate approbation from the ultimate Father. This is the yearning that defines us all. 🙂

    • David Lee says:

      Great insight Michael! I would be so much happier, easier to live with, and so much more focused in my work if I remembered that the ultimate Father approves of me in Christ.

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