Avoid perils of perfection and strive to be just good enough
BUSINESS LIFE:FOR 75 years, Jiro has been doing the same highly repetitive manual work. Since he was about 10, this 85-year-old man has spent most of his waking hours arranging little pieces of raw fish on to compressed balls of sticky rice. You might think he’d have got tired of it by now. But no: Jiro loves his job more than anything else in the world.
In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb’s admiring documentary, we see the chef stare straight at the camera and say, with grim earnestness: “I feel ecstatic every day. When I make sushi, I feel victorious.”
The film, with its lascivious shots of raw fish, is all about the purity of work. We are meant to think that Jiro is weird but wonderful. He obsesses over every scrap of fish. He hates holidays and is only absent for funerals and emergencies. His sushi restaurant – in a grotty subway in Tokyo that seats only 10 along a thin counter – is perhaps the finest in the world and has won three Michelin stars.
Jiro is not interested in expanding: he cares only about perfection. “I’ll continue to climb until I reach the top, but no one knows where the top is,” he says.
To see someone strive so hard at something should be uplifting. But the more I watched, the more revolted I became.
At one point, he inspects a bucket of octopus and explains how he used to get his assistants to massage the tentacles for 30 minutes, but then found that if they did it for 20 minutes longer, the taste was better in some subtle way that I didn’t quite get. Watching this, I flipped. Such striving is completely mad.
Jiro – or anyone else batty enough to aim for perfection in their work –- isn’t a force for good. Such obsession comes with a dark underside.
In Jiro’s case, this is not hard to find: his childhood was of an extreme hard-knocks variety. The son of a bankrupt drunk, he was kicked out of home at the age of nine to make his own way in the world.
In turn, Jiro has forced his two sons to spend five decades in fish, setting them up for failure in a fight to compete with their sushi-mad dad. “There is nothing I can do to top him,” one says in a resigned sort of way, all fight knocked out of him.
Jiro himself is unbending. “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill,” he says, eyes unblinking through round, rimless glasses.