Food documentaries are some of the best documentaries. Not only are they gorgeous to look at, but the story behind the chef and/or restaurant can be very moving. The artistry behind Japanese cuisine in particular has made it excellent fodder for documentarians — Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Come Back Anytime are both excellent examples. In The Pursuit of Perfection, director Toshimichi Saito looks to continue this tradition by highlighting four of today’s leading chefs in Japan and uncovering Tokyo’s upscale 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 collegeby following his passion for food. He is well known in the culinary world for his “rural cuisine” that harkens back to his hometown of Shiga.
We then meet Natsuko Shoji, a 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 fruits as exquisite decorations. Shoji opened Été in 2014, an intimate and exclusive omakase that serves up both savoury and sweet dishes as if they’re precious jewellery.
Probably the most decorated and well-known character in The Pursuit of Perfection is Yosuke Suga, owner of the uber-exclusive Sugalabo. Suga worked with world-renowned chef Joël Robuchon for over 15 years starting as Robuchon’s personal assistant and eventually becoming the executive chef of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo.
Lastly, we go behind the scenes with Takaaki Sugita, owner of the two Michelin Star sushi restaurant, Nihombashi-kakigaracho Sugita. Sugita is known for his attention to fresh ingredients, going to the fish market every morning to diligently pick the freshest fish from producers he has a long-standing relationship with.
The Pursuit of Perfection is a relatively short documentary (79 minutes), which means we’re only given quick nibbles of each of chef. We’re made aware of Shinohara’s karate foundations, Shoji’s troubled childhood, Suga’s dynastic culinary family, and Sugita’s day to day procurement. Truly though, each chef could fill an hour with his or her story and how that narrative has influenced food preferences and career paths, which would have made for a more compelling film. (Shoji in particular seems to have a very interesting story that is only given a few minutes of attention.)
While the title of the film suggests the idea of perfection will be explored, it serves more as a descriptor for the chefs’ attention to detail in their work. And perhaps this is where the documentary doesn’t quite stand up to films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Come Back Anytime: it lacks a cohesive narrative other than showcasing some of Tokyo’s most high-end restaurants. The film acts more as a four separate vignettes that probably would have worked better as an episodic mini-series.
Overall, The Pursuit of Perfection provides us with some lovely visuals of beautiful foods, and peels back the curtain a bit to show us how the sushi is made. It also gives most of us a look inside some of Tokyo’s most exclusive restaurants that we may not ever be able to nab a reservation at. However, its lack of in-depth storytelling leaves the film a bit wanting.
The Pursuit of Perfection screens as part of the 2022 Toronto Japanese Film Festival. Head here for more from this year’s festival.