Shokunin is the Japanese word that describes an “artisan” or “craftsman” of the highest honor. But this translation does not give the term it’s full due.
In Japanese, Shokunin has further nuance and depth of meaning.
Simply put, it’s a way of life.
The great Tokyo Sushi Chef, Jiro Ono, talks about Shokunin in the 2011 documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The title for the film comes from Jiro’s comment, “I make Sushi in my dreams.”
To Jiro, Shokunin is that special passion that enables an artist to connect his dreams with his work.
As someone who has spent his career fostering film directors through my company, Element, and being an obsessive foodie, I often think of the parallels between great Chefs and great Directors.
They both possess a passion for their craft, attention to detail, desire to improve, respect for the process, and lots of drive…
But the intangible quality that gives them their distinctive creative point-of-view – the ability to access their subconscious minds, and to create something unique and dreamlike – is what makes them special.
This is Shokunin.
In this sense, Chefs and Directors are kindred spirits.
This idea has struck me many times over the years, either while on the set watching a Director perform her/his craft (thinking of my next meal) or at an amazing restaurant (usually sushi) in the presence of a celebrated Chef at work.
Directors and Chefs are both master storytellers, and that is the heart of Shokunin.
When a Director tells a story, they carefully consider a multitude of factors: casting (character & performance), cinematography (lighting, composition, focal length, camera movement), art direction (location, set design, props, wardrobe) – with the end objective of it all working “in concert” to not only convey the narrative, but to evoke a specific emotion from the audience.
If any of these components are “off” – even slightly – the entire piece falls flat, like a mediocre meal.
Similarly, a great Chef tells a story, considering a wide range of details that need to harmoniously coalesce: the setting (the physical space, design, lighting, comfort, feel), the food itself (quality, texture, aroma) and the presentation of the meal.
All of these elements of “theatre” – when expertly combined – induce an amazing feeling in the person lucky enough to experience them.
Just as a Director carefully storyboards his narrative approach, a great Chef meticulously considers the “arc” of each meal.
Chef Ono is said to divide his servings into a “Three Act” structure, much like a movie or commercial.
One of Japan’s great food critics described experiencing Ono’s meal as a “symphony in three movements.”
In the First Movement, Chef Ono begins with the tried-and-true Japanese classics like Tuna – lean (Akami), then medium (Chutoro) and then fatty (Otoro).
The care taken into the building of each piece of sushi is breathtaking: the rice originates from a “secret farm” and is cooked like “no one else.” The Tuna is perfection, handpicked in the Tokyo market that morning and cut perfectly. The brush of soy is applied like the stroke of an artist.
This is pure poetry. Each piece is magic as it melts in his guests’ mouths, eliciting a symphony of flavor, eliciting special childhood memories, and giving “sense of peace.”
Ono’s audience has been captured.
In the Second Movement, it is now time to take a turn for adventure. Seasonal-based, and all about improvisation and creativity, the audience is primed to depart down a new path in their journey.
Depending on season and availability, we could see the likes of Hard Shell Clam (Hamaguri), Striped Mackerel (Shima-Aji), Shrimp (Kuruma Ebi) and Tako (Octupus) – all done in a way that feels “transcendent and unique.”
The Third Movement is the grand finale. And Jiro doesn’t mess around, going with the classic finish: Tamagoyaki. This is the signature grilled egg omelet, that takes years for a chef to perfect, and is offered up to the delight of his patrons.
His audience has been utterly slain and there is typically an emotional response, perhaps best described by the Japanese word “Umami” – which suggests a unique satisfaction derived from experiencing harmony from food.
It takes many months of waiting to get a seat at Jiro’s restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. And his meal is not cheap: $300+ dollars per plate for his “Omakase” menu, which is all he serves.
And I must mention that his restaurant is in a subway station, and only seats ten people?
You could try and pick up Jiro’s ingredients yourself, and attempt to recreate this experience for a fraction of the cost.
But you would never come close.
And in the world of filmmaking, these days almost anyone can “pick up the ingredients” and play Director by shooting something with their iPhone or DSLR, and put an edit together on their laptop.
So why would a client pay a Director to film a commercial or content film, when almost anyone can simply shoot something?
This question is akin to asking why would you pay to go to Sukiyabashi Jiro, when you can simply cook at home? The answer is clear: there is no substitute for a true artisan.
It has been said of Jiro that his patrons are “consuming his philosophy with every bite.” I think the same is true when you watch an exceptional Director’s film – you are being “served” something that is personal and distinctive, a “meal” that you can’t get anyplace else.