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Originally published Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 3:31 PM

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Movie review

'Jiro Dreams of Sushi': Behind the counter of a master chef

A movie review of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi": David Gelb's slyly insightful documentary about 85-year-old sushi restaurateur Jiro Ono is a case study in the phenomenon of masterful craftsmanship and generational transition.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Jiro Dreams of Sushi,' a documentary written and directed by David Gelb. 81 minutes. Rated PG for smoking and thematic elements. Egyptian.

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Whether or not you feel hungry after seeing David Gelb's slyly insightful documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" depends, well, on whether or not you like sushi.

That's a side dish, however. Gelb's low-key, appealing look at the world of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi maker whose tiny establishment, Sukiyabashi Jiro, can be found in a Tokyo basement — and whose patrons book reservations months in advance — is really a case study in the phenomenon of mastery.

One could make the same movie about a dedicated carpenter or flower arranger or teacher — anyone who does the same thing day in and out for decades with sacrifice, rigorous attention to detail and the conviction it is always possible to do a better job.

These days, of course, with experienced professionals out of work, or dismissed for aging or undervalued by exploitative employers, Ono's story of honor, renown and reward for consistent dedication to one craft since age 10 seems quaintly anachronistic.

But it is also uplifting and rich with issues about tradition and generational transition.

We gradually learn about Ono's Dickensian apprenticeship in sushi, which was necessary to his survival as a fatherless young boy.

A former bully, Ono's stern countenance today while standing over diners is an awkward if funny dynamic to behold. Even a tough Tokyo food critic admits dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro, despite its three-star review in the Michelin Guide, is unnerving.

But "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" isn't just about one man. We meet other engaging players in a long chain of command leading to sushi perfection, including exacting seafood vendors and Ono's 50-year-old son, Yoshikazu Ono, himself a master patiently awaiting his shot at running the show.

Another son, Takashi Ono, talks about being pushed into his own now-successful establishment.

With its glimpses of street-level commerce, modernist chamber score and Ono's assured, self-deprecating humor, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is a memorable feast.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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