The Human Drama

I’m inspired by different media. In a previous post I mentioned that I love animation. When I was a kid, I had aspirations of being a cartoonist, a writer, and an architect. (I would have been a really busy adult.) Alas, I quit my habit of regular sketching after my senior year of college. And my architectural drafting teacher in high school told me to give up the dream of being an architect, having disapproved of my “bowling alley” corridor designs. So, a couple of those dreams died early. But I can still appreciate the efforts of others.

I love a documentary, especially a profile of an artist—a behind-the-scenes look at what he or she does best. Chefs are artists whose medium is food. So as I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I expected my mind to dine. But I what feasted on was not the main course but a side dish. I’ll tell you what I mean by that in a minute.

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The 2011 documentary, directed by David Gelb, profiles sushi master, Jiro Ono. His work ethic made him a legend and made a meal at his ten-seat restaurant (Sukiyabashi Jiro) in Tokyo worth 30,000 yen ($307). How good is this place? It earned three stars in the Michelin Guide. So what does that mean? Let’s ask the Michelin Guide:

Three stars reward exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey.

To employ a cliché and an oblique reference to a Jack Nicholson movie, that’s as good as it gets. Oh, and did I mention that at the time the documentary was filmed, Jiro Ono was 85 years old and still working? Or that an apprenticeship in his restaurant takes ten long years?

Articles like this have been written about Jiro’s business advice or this, challenging whether Jiro indeed is the best at what he does. And I intended to write a post on Jiro’s tips for success. But interestingly, what I found most intriguing is not Jiro’s achievement—as great as that is. No, his oldest son Yoshikazu, the one waiting in the wings to inherit the business—that’s the story I found most compelling.

Imagine a profession you didn’t want or dreams you have that must die because a parent has other plans. There are many for whom this situation is a reality. We catch a glimpse of this reality—Yoshikazu’s reality—in the documentary. While others debated whether or not he, the heir apparent, can hold on to the legacy established by his father, I kept my eyes on the interactions between the family members: the respect of Yoshikazu as he described his father’s wisdom; the love and pride of Jiro as he introduced his oldest son to his (Jiro’s) old school chums; the camaraderie of brothers (Yoshikazu and Takashi) reminiscing.

That’s the human drama behind the business tips. And I almost missed it in my scramble to jot down the how-I-did-this sound bites. Sadly, this is a lesson revealed through my own writing.

You see, I have a habit of thinking plot first, character second. In my desire to hit all of my plot points, I was missing the human drama: the people in all of their messy glory. Over the years, my advisors and beta readers challenged me about my “plotty ways.” And this documentary serves as another reminder to see the person behind the pearls of wisdom.

While I was a student at VCFA, A. M. Jenkins, a faculty member and one of the four advisors I was privileged to have, passed out frienship bracelets to all of us as a reminder to put character first. I think I’ll dig out that bracelet (it’s buried on my coffee table under a pile of papers) as a reminder to make the human drama paramount in every book.