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Haoyang Zhao

Professor Sky Sitney

13 December 2013
A Textual Analysis of Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FMST355 Final Paper
This paper provides a textual analysis of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an American

documentary film directed by David Gelb. The film follows the story of Jiro Ono, a

Japanese sushi master and his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, both of whom are

also sushi chefs.

I. Sub-Genre, Filmmaker and Audience

Jiro Dreams of Sushi can fit in the sub-genre of expository documentary1. While

many of the images presented are poetic and aesthetically beautiful, the fragments

of different episodes and acts are cohesively linked through a more rhetorical frame.

The film does not attempt to persuade, but by showing the diligence and

craftsmanship of the chefs, audiences are presented with a strong perspective that

stemmed from Jiros intriguing philosophy. While there is no single voice-of-God

narration, some interviews with Mizutani, Yamamoto are used to advance the

arguments, precisely because they are more acquainted with Jiro and sushi industry,

making them the perfect candidates to inject greater credibility into the arguments,

as discussed later. The arguments are carried by the voices, and through repetitive

sequences of preparation and daily interactions, some of Jiros most cherished

qualities, such as work ethnics, patience, motivation, consistency and shokunin

(craftsman), are reinforced. Footages are edited largely to maintain the continuity of

discussion and perspectives, divided into three narrative acts, rather than following a

1! Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press.

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strict linear chronology. All these features contribute to the expository nature of the


Before making this film, David Gelb had some experiences working as a

filmmaker. He co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in a short film Lethargy (2002)2. Jiro

Dreams of Sushi is Gelbs first full-length feature documentary film3. Originally, David

Gelb intended to make a food equivalent to BBCs Planet Earth, documenting sushi

industry and different sushi restaurants around the world. Over the course of

scouting, Japanese food writer Yamamoto brought him to Sukiyabashi Jiro. An old

acquaintance of Jiro Ono, Yamamoto was the spirit guide for Gelb, knowing that he

will eventually be intrigued by Jiro. Indeed, ultimately Gelb realized that Jiro, the

Japanese national treasure, was such a living legend that all Gelbs idea about sushi

would be best conveyed through Jiros story. Gelb is the director of Reawakening

(2014), currently in post-production. Produced by Blumhouse Productions,

responsible for such thriller films as Insidious, Dark Skies and Paranormal Activity,

Reawakening is a thriller, suggesting a significant shift in filmmakers focus. Gelb

mentioned in an interview that as I build my skills I look forward to taking on the

challenge of a narrative.4 Instead of remaining a documentary filmmaker, Gelb is

now shifting towards mainstream narrative filmmaking.

Rather than narrowing the film down to target only food- or even sushi- lovers,

the filmmaker has a much broader base of audiences in mind. In theory, the film

appears to be targeting foodies, or persons with a heightened interest in food, and

It was featured in New York International Independent Film & Video Festival, a movie festival aimed for

underground, low budget and non-mainstream artists

In 2008, he made a 52 minutes documentary, A Vision of Blindness (2008), featuring the making process of

Fernando Meirelles major motion picture Blindness. However, there is little video information readily available
online about his previous body of works.
4!Lee, A. K. (2011, Sep 16). Interview with david gelb, director of this years closing night film jiro dreams of sushi. Retrieved

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especially those sushi aficionados, since the film devotes a large proportion to the

craft of sushi making. However, with widely positive critical reviews, the film is vastly

popular even among audiences who lack the initial interest in food, or Japan in

general. This is because the narrative illustrates the fascinating characters of Jiro

Ono and his sons, who followed his paths in becoming shokunin of sushi making.

The story explores the Japanese culture, the father-son relationship, the aspiring

sons overshadowed by their successful father, the work ethics and constant pursuit

for perfection and mastery of making sushi. As critic Steven Rea noted, Jiro Dreams

of Sushi isn't just a film for foodies, or Japanophiles. It's a meditation on work, on

finding one's path in life, and then walking it with singular purpose.5 These themes

appeal to a broader audience, because they share some degree of relevance to the

personal story of many people.

II. Historical and Institutional Factors

Putting into historical perspective, it is fascinating to see sushi making has

evolved over the centuries, and has elevated to an art form. The technique of

contemporary sushi making dated back to 18th century, when nigiri sushi was

invented by Hanaya Yohei towards the end of Japanese Edo period. At that time, the

dish was meant as a fast food for its convenience in preparation and eating.

Nowadays, sushi can be found in both convenience chains and fine restaurants,

highlighting its all encompassing nature and depth of the industry.

The film itself does provide a window of opportunity to better appreciate Jiros

work. By presenting Jiros restaurant and that many thoughts and preparatory

actions have to be made, the film draws a distinction between the pinnacle of sushi

making and the usual sushi-making audiences were used to. Yet, while Michelin

Rea, S. (2012, March 23). A tasty meditation on a master chef's life. Retrieved from


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Three Star rating suggests that it is worthwhile to visit the country just for this

restaurant alone, not everyone has the means or the luxury of time to pay pilgrimage

to Sukiyabashi Jiro. With the film, however, we can at least know the amazing works

behind Jiro and his team. Also, as a documentary, the film captures the fleeting

moments that may be impossible to see for future generations. Born in 1925, Jiro

Ono is well 88 years old in 2013. When the inevitable happens, people who have

missed the chance to meet Jiro in person can then refer back to the film, as a

reminder of the legacy and the spirit of shokunin that Jiro left behind.

The film gives us a glimpse of the disappearing fish due to overfishing. The

pursuit to finding high quality ingredients is an uphill battle for many sushi

restaurants, and especially for Sukiyabashi Jiro. The idea that business should

balance profit, while preserving nature is mentioned in the film, but not expanded to

its full potential. A sense of shared concern and responsibility is brought forth and

this may be a potential call for attention. However, there is no easy resolution to the

issue. The filmmaker is ultimately concerned with the state of art itself, rather than

the disappearance of fishes. This historically significant issue is only briefly

introduced but not explored in greater depth.

III. Socio-cultural context

Set in Japanese context, the film is a fine representation of culinary practice

and work ethics. Viewers are constantly reminded of Jiros philosophy, that labor is

demanding and rewarding simultaneously. For the apprentices, they have to

massage the octopus for 45 minutes before it reaches the maximum of texture. With

a meager income, apprentices have to work many hours and repeat the same

actions for years before moving to the next stage, but the reward lies in the craft

itself. The film discusses the changing socio-cultural perception, as young people are

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more inclined towards making quick money. Coming from American background,

Gelb is particularly inspired by the patience of apprentices. To him, it seems

impossible to see Americans working for many years before finally emerging as a

master. The clash of Oriental and Western cultures is finely imbued in the film.

Audiences are given a window to explore such a culturally different mentality.

The overlooked process of sushi making is also brought to limelight. While

more people have visited Sukiyabashi Jiro, many do not appreciate the fact that

many hours of preparation have been spent for the sushi that they finish in fifteen

minutes. It may appear easy, but the whole process takes many years of practice,

and fine-tuned collaboration between chefs and suppliers, who have also dedicated

their life to a specialized type of field. Instead of selling all types of fish, each vendor

is specialized in only one fish. They are the best masters, simply because they are

the shokunin of their specialization. Interestingly, almost everyone has mentioned

that its not about the money. Instead, their satisfaction comes from the assurance

that their craft can be given to the customers in the best possible state, under the

hands of Jiro. As a foreign filmmaker, Gelb provides his perspective as a foreigner

observing the Japanese culture. Overall, the film succeeds in introducing some

aspects of oriental cultures to foreign audiences. To them, the film is a revelation.

The film also discusses the socio-cultural issue of father-son relationship. As

Gelb puts it, It was no longer a movie about sushi; it became a movie about family,

succession and a philosophy of hard work.6

Ultimately, Jiros philosophy of

parenting comes from his own childhood. The film briefly discusses Jiros father, who

left him during the Great Depression, and Jiro had no one but to rely on himself from

age of seven. He could have repeated his fathers mistake, or created a family that

Harris, B. (2012, Mar 7). David gelb, jiro dreams of sushi. Retrieved from


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he never had. Consequently, Jiro trained his children to be independent. Takashi, the

younger son, mentioned that he opened his own restaurant and quoted his father,

now you have no home to come back to. He said that I would be buried in

Roppongi. Failure was not an option. Yoshikazu was destined to inherit his fathers

mantle, because Japan is a traditional dynastic society, and the eldest son usually

takes over family business. While Yoshikazu dreamed of becoming a car racer, he

still went on to be the best of his trade. As mentioned in the commentary, Gelb calls

Yoshikazu the reluctant hero and a natural protagonist, precisely because of the

tension between his dream and reality. Despite that Jiro did not spend much time

with his sons, the connection between family members and dynamics at or after work

is simply touching.

In addition, the issue of sons overshadowed by fathers achievement is

explored, which may be relatable to some audiences. Yoshikazu and Takashi are

overshadowed by the successful achievement of their father. In order to match

peoples expectation, Yoshikazu has to do twice as good as his father so that he

can be recognized as the new owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro. The film dedicates the

second act to Yoshikazus attempt at achieving his best. It isnt until the end of the

film that Gelb reveals that when Michelin inspectors came in, it was Yoshikazu,

rather than Jiro, who prepared the dishes. The revelation is an enchanting plot-twist,

accumulating from all the previous buildup and suggests that Yoshikazu has indeed

inherited the tradition and is up to the challenge of living up to his fathers legacy.

On hindsight, there is little representation of feminine figures in the film. The

restaurant is maintained by a cleaning lady, who meticulously keeps up with the

standard of Jiro, but she is never featured. All the chefs and apprentices in the

restaurant are males. As Silvia Killingsworth from New Yorker noted, Gelb

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commented that its sexism, frankly.7 We know that Jiro has two sons, and that

suggests he has a wife. She should be a source of balance and backup for Jiro, so

that he is able to fully dedicate himself to work while the mother takes care of family

and children. Instead, all that is presented is a photo of her. The absence of women

in general can be partly attributed to the shy nature of Japanese. While this claim is

stereotypical, many Japanese women do prefer to stay behind the scene because

they are more introvert and conservative. To the foreign viewers, this may be of


IV. Narrative

In Jiro, Gelb has demonstrated his command of constructing a narrative,

through the powerful tool of editing. As he said in an interview, I shot 150 hours of

footage. We made an 83-minute movie. Choosing what to include in the film was the

hardest part. To filmmakers end, rather than bluntly providing food information, such

footages are meant to provide context for the characters. In order to capture a larger

audience, he chooses to focus on a single family and presents a more intimate story,

thus highlighting the importance of editing in shifting films appeal to its target

audiences. While sushi information may be meticulously detailed and interesting,

some scenes does not directly contribute to the main narrative, and they are deleted,

while only the most important elements of sushi making in the film are retained.

Similarly removed are the interviews with master suppliers. Rather than including all

four sequences, their expertise and commentary are weaved through editing into a

single sequence, allowing for a more cohesive narrative development. This is an

captivating resonance to the philosophy of Jiro and Yoshikazu, who believe that one

should try his best to improve without fear. Also, rather than using fast cuts, the

Killingsworth, S. (2012, Mar 9). Perfect sushi. Retrieved from



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filmmaker relies on simple and direct cuts. The emphasis on simplicity is an

emulation of the pure and simple sushi that Jiro makes. Both the story and the sushi

are connected through their simplicity.

The film does not follow a chronological order. The shooting took place in two

phases, one in winter and another in spring. The footages from winter time are

interweaved with those from summer, suggesting that rhetoric arguments and flow of

narrative triumphed the need for a linear chronology. Instead, the film is structured

thematically with three distinct acts, akin to a classic story. The first act sets up the

success of Jiros practice and beauty of the art, backed by by food reviewers and

peers. Then, Mizutani challenged, will Yoshikazu ever be better than his father?

The challenge posed by Yoshikazu is the main theme for the second act, as

audiences witness Yoshikazu visiting the fish market, and learn about his aspirations.

The third act entails the filmmaker following Jiro and Yoshikazu back to Jiros

hometown, further elaborating on the characters.

Some of the interviews also help in the the buildup for the narrative. Mizutani is

a former apprentice of Jiro and Yamamoto is a food aficionado and writer. Both of

them provided detailed insights and honest perspectives about Jiro and his work

ethics. As mentioned in the filmmaker commentary, they are like narrators for the

film. Gelb utilizes their comments to bring out various characteristics of Jiro and his

sons, allowing audiences to be more familiar with the characters while giving Gelb

more creative freedom to control the flow of the story through careful editing. Also,

sometimes Yamamoto is the one asking Jiro questions. Because Jiro is much more

familiar with his friend, the interviews would be more intimate and comfortable,

compared to the case if Gelb or translator asks the question. The greater sense of

familiarity allows us to know Jiro better through a more personal perspective.

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Yamamoto and Mizutani are recognized in the field, and their voices are less

polished than a professional narrator, thus their expertise would lend a hand to

credibility of film.

Furthermore, the duality of characters are explored. Whenever Jiro and

apprentices are making sushi, they would appear as stern and concentrated, but

they hardly appear smiling. However, early in the third act, as the camera follows

them visiting the Buddhist Temple, their humor is portrayed. Structurally, the

humorous interactions build up their characters as lively people, rather than distant

sushi chefs. The narrative is made more cohesive, when characters themselves are

living and breathing in the camera, propelling the storyline forward.

V. Film Language and Representation

As a classical music fan, Gelb has an extensive selections of classical pieces

from Tchaikovsky8, Beethoven, Bach and most notably, Philip Glass. Because Jiro is

a master of craft, Gelb maintains that only classical music is the appropriate device

to elevate his filmmaking craft to match the mastery of Jiro. As Gelb personally

mentioned, this would make it feels like the film is from his (Jiros) perspective.

The music of Philip Glass is a particular fit. His style is dubbed minimalism,

but Glass himself prefers to be seen as a composer of "music with repetitive

structures. This is highly metaphorical and cohesive to what Jiro believes in.

Yamamoto summarizes in his narration, that Jiro's sushi course is like a concerto.

The meal is divided into three movements. Class items, like tuna are presented in

the first movement. The second movement is like an improvisation. It's like a

cadenza. In the third movement, sea eel, kanpyo and egg comprise a traditional

finale. While Gelb already wanted to use classical music, it was not until this

With the starting title, Gelb featured Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, Opus #5, with his great uncle

being the solo violinist.

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precious moment that he saw the sensible linkage between classical music and the

film. Specifically, both Jiro and Glass are the masters of their craft, and they insist on

repeating doing exactly the same thing and looking for tiny bits of improvement in

order to advance to a higher stage, while at the same time maintaining a threshold

standard. The musical metaphor is constantly utilized. Sushi making appears as a

symphony and Jiro is the conductor, while chefs and apprentices handle their

instruments as practiced. Their emphasis for consistency and repetition echoes one

another, making the music rhyme with the tempo and movement of the film, fitting for

Jiros philosophy.

The camera work is refined and stylized. Because of its lavish cinematography

and exquisite details of sushi presented, some reviews have described the film as a

high-end food porn.9 Nevertheless, the cinematography features mostly shallow

depth of field and selective focusing throughout most interview and sushi-making

scenes to give a singular focal point for audiences attention. The extreme close-ups

of Jiros face are intended to emphasize the details of his facial expression and

language, echoing his own attention to detail. However, there is also an exception.

When walking through the fish market, the shot is ultra wide-angle with barrel

distortion but great details across the image. This is distinct from the shallow depth

of field shots like the interviews that follows straight after. It provides a wider

perspective of what is happening around the scene in a first person perspective. This

emulates the experience of going with master to the market, as apprentices learnt

from their master.

The use of slow motion in the sequences featuring chefs and apprentices as

they prepared such ingredients as eel and octopus, is intricately poetic, as the

Ichikawa, F., & Tamura, H. (2012, October). Maru: An ethnographic approach to revive local communities. In

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings (Vol. 2012, No. 1, pp. 186-199). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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filmmaker attempts to augment and emphasize the importance of what happened

behind the curtain, which is usually neglected by many customers. The presentation

is simple, but through repetition in displaying various types of sushi, audiences are

left mesmerized by the varied recipes and dedication that Jiro and his fellow

apprentices adopted. Also, the steadicam shots in the auction site are poetically

striking, fully demonstrating the dynamics of fishermen and vendors. Combined with

rhythmic music and almost dancing movements of salesmen, it was definitely one of

the most special scenes.

Gelb has a natural design and mise en scne for most interviews. When the

camera rolls in the restaurant, lighting is mostly warm and soft. There is little

intentional artificial lighting added, apart from the indoor lighting from the restaurant

itself. Instead, a large aperture is used to absorb as much available light as possible,

apart from simply providing a shallow foreground. With a relatively large sensor

provided by the advanced digital camera, the shot is accomplished without much

technical artifacts. The chefs and apprentices are comfortably dressed in their

aprons, and filmmaker does not interfere with their choices of hairstyle or costumes.

All of these provides hints to the personality of each individual and the context that

they are in. However, even just within a confined space, David Gelb tries his best to

be present at different locations to capture various angles. This not only allows the

editor to have more raw materials to work on, but also ensures that audiences are

not potentially bored by watching sequences of making sushi in a mostly recurring

style. Instead, he puts in extra efforts to frame multiple compositions even for a

single scenario, so that audiences would get a better sense of surrounding while

being kept entertained. Because of this, the camerawork is shaky at times, but not to

the degree of being uncomfortable.

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There are some footages featuring the style of interrotron interviews. At the

beginning of the film, Jiro asserts that Once you decide your work, you must

immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. By speaking

directly to camera, audiences are brought close to Jiro as if he is simply conversing

with viewers. Towards the end, Jiro looks directly into camera again, saying that "I

want both of my sons to continue on. They both will run their own restaurants. The

interrotron style further adds a sense of familiarity between viewers and Jiro, as if we

have known him for a long time even before watching the film. By reverberating with

the particular stylistic tool, audiences are invited to reflect back what the filmmaker

has shown at this special moment as the narrative developed.

In reference to the issue of overfishing, mentioned before, the sequence also

has some cinematic merits. For instance, Gelb displays a series of sushi on the

plate, and then allows each of them to fade away. Post production is consciously

utilized to hint the vanishing number of such fishes. A stock footage from decades

ago is also employed to suggest the abundance and high standard of fresh fish back

then, in contrast to the declining situation now. This sequence is placed right after

the climax of sushi concerto. To place it earlier in the film would not fit in the

storyline. Instead, by strategical juxtaposition, the audiences first appreciate the

beauty of sushi, and then realize that such treasures may soon be lost due to our

own actions of overfishing.

The filmmaker also adopts the techniques of many prior established works. One

instance is the reminiscence of Planet Earth photographic style, from which Gelb

was highly inspired. In Planet Earth, camera would move forward during aerial shots,

changing the spatial relationship between the earth and the viewers and allowing

viewers to see what was hidden behind the mountains and the sand dunes. For the

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close-up shots of sushi dishes, Gelb steadily moves the camera towards the counter,

revealing Yoshikazu finishing a sushi, which is then placed on a plate, reflecting its

mirror image on the polished surface. Another case of adopting skill is observed

earlier in the film. In the first act, as Gelb discusses the surging popularity of sushi,

he overlays many people walking on street. Through the use of time-lapse, as

people moves, only architecture and background stay still. This is strikingly similar

visually to what was done in The Fog of War (2003) by Errol Morris. More

specifically, after about 41 minutes into the film, Errol Morris interlaces slow-motion

movement with fast motion of pedestrians to show the dynamics of Japan.

Coincidentally, both films are set in the context of Japan. While the graphical

composition is different (Errol Morris utilized a diagonal composition while David

Gelbs shot was more head-on and horizontal), the underlying idea is similar. It is

apparent how filmmakers can be influenced by other cinematically significant works.

There are also some moments of spontaneous camerawork. At the start, one

customer walks in to ask about the reservation and the dining experience. As

Yoshikazu explains, the focus transits to his back. Then, as the inquiry quickly

unfolds, Gelb alters the composition again to include the customer from Shizuoka,

who is now only faintly visible in the background bokeh. As he leaves the restaurant,

the focus moves to Jiro, who is concentrated on other tasks at hand, before cutting

to another following sequence. The whole sequence is made in one single take. Gelb

mentioned that some people have even questioned if this scene was staged. In fact,

it is precisely because of his quick reaction and ability to improvise on the spot, plus

a hint of luck, that resulted in such a successful spontaneous shot. Another case is

when Jiro laughs at the fact that people still think Jiro makes all the preparation.

The camera is fixated tightly on Jiros face with shallow focus, and then as

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conversation unfolds, the focus moves to Yoshikazu, and then quickly back to Jiro.

The quick focusing is impressive. What is more impressive is that as the composition

changes, we then realize that Yoshikazu is listening in the background all the time. It

is like a revelation, and provided more context to the situation.

The advancement in digital capturing should be noted. The source footage is

mainly in 4K format, and master copy was rendered in 2K1011. This allows a high

definition of details that can be projected and observed. In Jiros constant pursuit of

perfection, he notes that there is always room for improvement, and that usually

comes from the most minute details. The high level of definition is crucial, because

more attention can be given to such details, allowing us to experience that elevated

state of art. For instance, in one of the close-ups, viewers would observe the gradual

settling motion of hamaguri as it is placed on the plate. This is only observable had

filmmaker paid enough attention to every detail, and only possible had chefs

practiced the art over and over again.

In Apprentice's journey, one of the deleted sequences, Yoshikazu discusses

the analogy between making refined versus convenient sushi and digital versus

analog, and links their self-disciplined practice to the analog world. Ironically and

interestingly, the whole film is shot using Canon EOS 7D and Red One Camera, both

of which are digital cameras. The film industry has advanced and adopted digital

capture to provide instant reviews and easier processing. With Jiros counter-intuitive

approach of only using the highest quality ingredients and most appropriate

techniques for cooking, he has brought the craft to a new level of cost inefficiency.

The use of digital camera, however, is intended to lower the overall cost of

! IMDb. (n.d.). Jiro dreams of sushi (2011) technical specifications. Retrieved from
! According to Sony, in computer-speak, K means two to the tenth power or 1,024. In digital film scanning, the

width of the image is described as 2K (2048) or 4K (4096) pixels.

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production while sacrificing the touch and precision of analog photography, the

predominant tool for early documentary filmmaking. The fact that the capturing tool is

digital and rapid, while the subject being captured still adhered to traditions and slow

processes, is fascinating to think about.

VI. Conclusion

Throughout the textual analysis, different areas such as target audience, sub-

genre, historical and social factors, editing, narrative structure, cinematography and

music are explored for Jiro Dreams of Sushi, with reference to some specific scenes.

These elements are crucial to the formulation and success of the film, and hence a

comprehensive analysis allows us to better appreciate its meaning and understand

its significance in the overall social, cultural and historical environment.


Gelb, D. (Director) (2011). Jiro dreams of sushi [DVD].

Harris, B. (2012, Mar 7). David gelb, jiro dreams of sushi. Retrieved from http://
Ichikawa, F., & Tamura, H. (2012, October). Maru: An ethnographic approach to
revive local communities. In Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference
Proceedings (Vol. 2012, No. 1, pp. 186-199). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
IMDb. (n.d.). Jiro dreams of sushi (2011) technical specifications. Retrieved from
Killingsworth, S. (2012, Mar 9). Perfect sushi. Retrieved from http://
Lee, A. K. (2011, Sep 16). Interview with david gelb, director of this years closing
night film jiro dreams of sushi. Retrieved from
Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press.
Rea, S. (2012, March 23). A tasty meditation on a master chef's life. Retrieved from

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