Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2022: The Pursuit of Perfection
Food documentaries are some of the best documentaries. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but the story behind the chef and/or the restaurant can be very moving. The artistry behind Japanese cuisine has made it excellent fodder for documentary filmmakers – Jiro dreams of sushi and Come back when you like are two excellent examples. In The pursuit of perfectiondirector Toshimichi Saito seeks to carry on this tradition by spotlighting four of today’s top chefs in Japan and learning about Tokyo’s high-end food scene.
The first of Saito’s subjects is Takemasa Shinohara, the owner of Ginza Shinohara, a two Michelin star kaiseki restaurant. Once a promising karate athlete, Shinohara surprised his parents and teachers after college by following his passion for food. He is well known in the culinary world for his “rural cuisine” reminiscent of his hometown of Shiga.
We then meet Natsuko Shoji, pastry chef and one of the few notable female chefs in Japan. Shoji is well known for blending her love for designer fashion with baked goods to create some of the most beautiful treats using fresh fruit as exquisite decorations. Shoji opened Summer in 2014, an intimate and exclusive omakase that serves savory and sweet dishes as if they were precious jewels.
Probably the most decorated and well-known figure in The pursuit of perfection is Yosuke Suga, owner of the ultra-exclusive Sugalabo. Suga worked with world renowned chef Joël Robuchon for over 15 years beginning as Robuchon’s personal assistant and eventually becoming the executive chef of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo.
Finally, we go behind the scenes with Takaaki Sugita, owner of the two-star Michelin sushi restaurant, Nihombashi-kakigaracho Sugita. Sugita is known for his attention to fresh ingredients, heading to the fish market every morning to diligently pick the freshest fish from growers with whom he has a long-standing relationship.
The pursuit of perfection is a relatively short documentary (79 minutes), which means we’re only given quick bites of each of the chefs. We learn about the basics of Shinohara’s karate, Shoji’s troubled childhood, Suga’s dynastic culinary family, and Sugita’s daily shopping. In reality, each chef could dedicate an hour to their story and how that story influenced food preferences and career paths, which would have made the movie more compelling. (Shoji in particular seems to have a very interesting story that only gets a few minutes of attention.)
Although the film’s title suggests that the idea of perfection will be explored, it serves more to describe the attention to detail the chefs put into their work. And maybe that’s where the documentary doesn’t quite stand up to movies like Jiro dreams of sushi and Come back when you like: it lacks a cohesive narrative other than the presentation of some of Tokyo’s most upscale restaurants. The movie acts more like four separate vignettes that probably would have worked better as an episodic miniseries.
Globally, The pursuit of perfection gives us beautiful visuals of beautiful food and opens the curtain a bit to show us how sushi is made. It also gives most of us a glimpse of some of Tokyo’s most exclusive restaurants that we may never be able to book into. However, its lack of in-depth storytelling leaves the film a bit lacking.
The pursuit of perfection screens as part of the 2022 Toronto Japanese Film Festival. Head here to learn more about this year’s festival.