This is the first of many posts directed towards men and biblical masculinity. Culture shapes and molds much of how we view the definition of masculinity. Movies serve as a platform upon which a cast and crew can convey their worldview and message. Movie goers are subjected to these viewpoints, whether cognizant of that fact or not. Our goal in reviewing the films in this series is to highlight the good and bad of the movie, crossing it with what the Bible has to say about manliness.
The first review is from Jiro Dreams of Sushi and should accompany the ideas being taught in the series A Man and His Work at Grace Church in South Carolina. Today's post is from a guest writer and friend of mine, Jonathan Allston.
For more information on Grace Church and A Man and His Work, check out these links:
Jiro Dreams of Sushi tells the story of an 85-year-old Tokyo resident who has devoted his life to producing great sushi, and as it turns out, the documentary’s title happens to be a statement of fact: Jiro really does dream of sushi. In the film’s opening scene, Jiro confesses that he has visions about sushi, that he wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas of how to improve upon what is widely regarded as the best sushi in the world. Jiro dreams of sushi because he loves being a sushi chef, and he hasn’t stopped loving it after 75 years in the business.
Jiro’s passion for his work is wonderfully attractive, and it begs the question:
What is the standard by which we measure success in our work? Is it simply the financial bottom line? Is it being better than the other guy?
If we take our cue from Jiro, then perhaps our vocational measuring stick should be nothing short of pleasure, both the pleasure we take in our work and the pleasure others receive in our work. The ramifications that pleasure should have on a man and his work are enormous, and Jiro’s story helps us understand a few of those ramifications more clearly.
One ramification is that the pleasure we take in our work is proportional to the amount of energy we put into it. If there is one thing we learn about Jiro and his associates, it is that they work hard all the time. Consistently producing anything that is literally unmatched demands such a price, but it also ennobles and dignifies those who produce it. Pleasure takes work, but pleasure that takes work is the best kind.
Another ramification: as a vocational measuring stick, pleasure asks us to consider the power of simplicity. Perhaps the most striking thing about Jiro’s restaurant (Sukiyabashi Jiro) is that it offers the best sushi in the world in the most unlikely of places: underground in the Tokyo subway system, in a room only large enough to seat 10 customers. It is a surprisingly simple setting for the exquisite product people enjoy there. Beyond that, the restaurant also enjoys the simplicity of doing only one thing as excellently as possible. At the beginning of the film Jiro’s son and successor, Yoshikazu, interacts with a man inquiring about the restaurant. The man asks if he can pre-order any specific appetizers, to which Yoshikazu responds, “We only serve sushi.” In a culture that demands so much of its producers, we can easily be drawn into the mission creep trap that does not allow us to put enough energy into our unique contribution. The end result is a loss of pleasure in our work. Ironically, it is the desire to “find work I’m passionate about” (much like Jiro has done) that drives many men to quit one vocation for the sake of another. But Jiro’s advice should make us question how we will find pleasurable work. “You have to fall in love with your work,” he says. In Jiro’s mind, we can love whatever we’ve chosen to do. Learning to love the work we’re doing, rather than “following our dreams” is usually not seen as a legitimate option. But perhaps for the sake of our own pleasure, we should put that option—the simpler, less sexy option—back on the table.
One cannot become the greatest sushi chef in the world without simplicity, but an even more basic requirement is great ingredients, and the folks at Sukiyabashi Jiro readily acknowledge that they depend upon the expertise of others to provide those ingredients. The “tuna guy” at the fish market, the rice supplier (who sells his best rice only to Jiro because he doesn’t trust anyone else to prepare it correctly), and many others contribute to the process. What results is community of the purest sort, in which men gain mutual respect and trust because they are masters at their work. When the final product reaches the mouths of Jiro’s customers, the pleasure they experience is the result of a community of masters who take pleasure in their work. Who would have thought that sushi could contribute to human flourishing on such a level?
And when it comes to flourishing, apparently eating sushi can amount to something of a spiritual experience when it is expertly prepared. The film repeatedly compares Jiro’s sushi to a symphony: beauty on display. This may seem like a dramatic way to talk about sushi, but the truth is, when work is done well, it has the ability to invite people into something good and beautiful.
If we truly believe that God is the Source of all beauty and pleasure, then we should take seriously our ability to mediate some of God’s glory to the world through the beautiful work we do. Our work should be done to serve people, to grant them pleasure and beauty that can usher them to the ultimate Source of their enjoyment.
In all this talk of pleasure it is important to remember that pleasure can be a dangerous motivation, but it is only when we have a shallow view of pleasure that it begins to spoil the work we do. One example of this in the film comes when the sushi chefs bemoan the shrinking availability of fish. There are several sushi dishes that Jiro has served for years that are no longer available due to a lack of supply. While this may at first strike the audience as a shameless plug for an environmentalist agenda, it is actually a vital piece to having a holistic view of pleasure. If pleasure is the standard by which we measure success in our work, then why not pile on the pleasure? Why not cast our nets wider and deeper? Why not catch as much tuna as possible so that Jiro can produce more of his delicacy? But when Yoshikazu says that we need to regulate the fishing industry “for the sake of our progeny,” he is drawing out the idea that in order for pleasure to be truly pleasurable, it must go beyond instant gratification, it must be about preserving pleasure for our children, for those who are destitute, and even for God who, according to John’s Revelation, created all things for his pleasure.
The prime example in the documentary of pleasure that spoils work actually comes from Jiro himself. Despite the great wisdom Jiro has to offer in regard to work, he may be the quintessential picture of a man who escapes into his work. Jiro still carries the wounds of a father who was a drunk and who forced him out of the home at the age of 9 to work and fend for himself. While Jiro has offered his children something better, especially his mentorship in the sushi business, Jiro speaks of how his children thought a stranger was sleeping in their house on the rare occasion that they spied him in their mother’s bed. Jiro truly was a stranger to his family because he poured himself into his work. In this way, his pleasure in his work made him an absent father.
But here again, pleasure itself can be our teacher and healer. The amount of expertise we can achieve in our craft is limitless, and this in some sense makes the amount of pleasure we can take in our work limitless as well. This is why Jiro advises us to always be improving our craft. After all, the best sushi in the world can always get better. This should give us motivation to always improve ourselves, but it should also humble us and keep us from having our craft carry the weight of our souls. We’re free to work as hard as we can to be as excellent as possible because we can never reach the point where we can’t improve upon our excellence. But we’re also free to let go of the stifling ambition to be perfect.
What does it look like for us to take pleasure in our work? Put another way, how can we value our work to the point that it becomes the fabric of our dreams?
God has been kind enough to grant us meaningful, pleasurable work if we will pursue it.
But if we are to take pleasure seriously, we have to understand that God is its Source and work done skillfully can be its mediator. So let’s pour into the Source and into the mediator the energy they are due.