April 25, 2013

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI While I Dream Of A Better Path

"The flavor is all that matters."

I'm a recent convert to the joys of sushi.  As a child I was a very picky eater, and the only time I ate fish was in stick form.  (My younger brother takes the picky eater crown though.  He basically ate nothing but cereal and Eggo waffles until high school.)  Over the years I have slowly expanded my culinary horizons to include the likes of escargot, alligator, turtle, goat and even ostrich.*  The lunch place in the lobby of my office has sushi every Wednesday and a sampling of salmon rolls, spicy tuna and BBQ eel have become a weekly custom for me.  Needless to say, Jiro Dreams Of Sushi only amplified my craving.

Jiro Ono runs a small, ten seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.  But despite its humble appearances, this is the premiere sushi joint in all of Japan.  Meals start around $300 per person and reservations are required, usually about a month in advance.  In fact, Jiro is the only sushi chef to be awarded three stars by Michelin because, in their own words, "Three stars was the only rating adequate for the restaurant."  We're shown every different component of Jiro's meticulous process; he uses a rice that his supplier refuses to sell to anyone else ("because no one else would know how to cook it properly") and he selects only the very best fish available to him, never settling for a subpar product simply to meet customer demand.  The film is not only a revealing glimpse into one of the most lauded kitchens in the world, it's a beautifully shot love letter to the art of sushi itself.  Each different meal is captured in crisp and vibrant detail.  Even if you don't like sushi, you will absolutely want to reach through the screen and pop each delicate morsel into your salivating mouth. 

However, what's stuck with me since my first viewing isn't just colorful images of delicious treats, but Jiro's entire work/life philosophy.  The man is 85 years old and the ultimate creature of routine.  He almost never closes the restaurant and has no plans to retire.  Jiro will continue to work until he is physically unable to do so because his work is the thing that makes him happiest in all the world.  His approach is terrifically blunt: choose a career that makes you happy, work hard to master your skills, then continue to do that every day for the rest of your life.  It's a simple, down to earth strategy that served our parents and our grandparents extremely well in years past, but I can't help but wonder if such thinking is still relevant in the face of a constantly shifting global economy and a generation with a rapidly decreasing attention span.

There used to be such a thing as job security.  And pensions.  Not so much anymore.  Gone are the days where you get a good job at a decent company and work there for most of your life knowing that your employer would take care of you when it came time for retirement.  In the wake of the baby boomer generation, the lifespan of most jobs and companies has dramatically decreased.  There are simple, mathematical issues of demographics and population growth at work here, but a shift in the moral outlook of American business has also wreaked havoc on the psyche of our workforce.  In an age where small businesses are routinely slain by multinational corporations and a company's profit margin takes precedence over the lives of its employees, there's the pervading feeling that no one is safe.  At any moment you could lose your job to someone younger (and cheaper) who possess a set of technological skills you barely comprehend.  And even if your position is safe, your company may not be.  With disturbing frequency, we're seeing larger corporations willing to outsource jobs and circumvent regulation in the never ending quest to increase their bottom line while simultaneously edging out their competition.  I'm all for capitalism, but I'm also for having a damn conscience, something that becomes difficult to maintain when those that would like us to believe that "corporations are people" show such naked contempt for the actual human beings that keep a corporation running.  It's the assembly line run amok; we're all just cogs in the machinery of profit and everyone is replaceable and/or expendable in the name of success.

At the same time, (or perhaps even directly because of this hostile environment) the younger generations seem uninterested in the concept of hard work over time.  It's easy to see why, as we're living in a age where literally any piece of information can immediately be conjured out of the air and there are a dozen different ways of instantly communicating with friends, family or even strangers across the globe.   There's an inescapable feeling of accessibility to anyone or anything, at anytime, from anywhere.  Unfortunately, because it's not exactly earned, accessibility mistakenly gives way to entitlement.  It's the reason that the music industry was so spectacularly hobbled while film and television have gone to such great lengths to (unsuccessfully) combat piracy: no one wants to work/pay for something when you can get it for free with minimal effort.  That same mentality has crept into so much of our culture.  It's why journalism (and particularly CNN) is such a mess right now, because actual reporters are trying to contend with the bullet-pointed idiocy of Buzzfeed and TMZ.  Why spend ten minutes reading an articulate, well researched article when you can get the gist in a tweet and move on to the next thing?  (Not so coincidentally, the need for news corporations to make a profit also lead folks like CNN to waste digital ink on gossipy bullshit non-news while the people at Fox to simply make shit up to placate their audience.)  It's also why reality TV is so popular, leading to the existence of pond scum like the Kardashians and the cast of Jersey Shore; it's all proof that anyone can become rich and/or famous despite having no discernible skills, talent or work ethic.

Sweet Jeebus, I really am turning into a crochety old man, aren't I?

I guess I am a little bitter.  You see, all I've ever wanted is a job that I truly love, the way Jiro loves sushi.  Right now I don't have it, so it was hard to watch this film without instinctively re-evaluating my own career choices.  I've recently come to the realization that I would rather work a low-level job in a field that means something to me than be well paid for something I'm not emotionally invested in.  I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes I feel like I'd rather go back to being a security guard or an agent's assistant because at least then I'm contributing to an industry I really care about.  A big part of why I started this project in the first place was because I felt that there was something missing in my life, a sense of personal fulfillment.  While I'm currently earning the largest paycheck in my employment history (and likely future), I derive no real joy or pleasure from my job.  That's not to say I hate my work so much as it fills me with ambivalence.  I've had jobs that I dreaded and jobs that I looked forward to, and this is neither.  But the money is too good to turn away, my work day is not usually stressful and it affords me the free time to pursue other endeavors like the one you're reading now.  It's not great, it's not terrible...it's good enough.

But is "good enough" really good enough?  I got into acting and movies because, of every subject I've ever studied and every interest I've ever pursued, nothing has ever made me happier than performing or watching films.  But, unlike Jiro's sushi, it's a field in which success is not merely determined by talent, skill and hard work.  There are a number of other factors that are almost entirely out of one's control, and eventually I hit a wall.  I didn't love my chosen field any less, but I realized that it simply wasn't a feasible career for me at that moment.  I never wanted to be a celebrity, I simply wanted to work consistently enough to make a life for myself and provide for my future family.  Alas, I couldn't make it happen.  Instead I've retreated into what amounts to my fallback plan, and the sense of lost opportunity has begun to gnaw away at me.  I have a tendency to grow complacent too easily and I don't want to wake up one day to discover that I'm forty years old and I still don't know what I want to do with my life.

That's the internal struggle in which I currently find myself engaged.  I know I don't want to keep doing what I'm doing, but what's the alternative?  Do I go back to performing, using the last ten years of experience to try and do it better, smarter?  Or do I go in a completely new direction?  To be honest, another reason I started this project was to try a dry run for some kind of writing career.  It's not a terribly lucrative career, but it also feels like a way I can have a voice in this field that I love without living in Los Angeles.  I've also thought about perhaps getting involved with film distribution or exhibition.  I would love to work for a great independent theater or help program festivals in order to share great movies with people who might not otherwise discover them.  I just don't know right now, but I feel like I'm running out of time to figure it out.

Jiro Ono is a fierce proponent of routine and repetition, and the daily grind of an office job is a pretty big stumbling block for me.  Spending years going to the same place every day, seeing the same people and doing the same thing with little variation...the very thought makes me shudder.  In that way, I'm fortunate to be married to a gypsy who can't even stand the idea of living in the same place for five years, let alone working there.  I suppose that's another part of why I wanted to make movies, the opportunity to move from project to project every few months or years without the danger of falling into a rut.  I'm in that rut now, but at least I know it and I'm looking for a way out.  

Whatever path I end up following, I have no doubt that I'll have to work tirelessly to improve both myself and my skills.  But first I need to decide which is the path that makes me truly happy.

I'm not sure which part will be harder.

*I'm on a subtle quest to eat as many different animals as possible.

Title: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi
Director: David Gelb
Starring: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Daisuke Nakazama
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

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