Toronto Japanese Film Festival

The Pursuit of Perfection Review: A Four Course Meal

2022 Toronto Japanese Film Festival

7 mins read

The Pursuit of Perfection
(Japan, 79 min.)
Dir. Toshimichi Saito
Featuring: Takemasa Shinohara, Natsuko Shoji, Yosuke Suga, Takaaki Sugita, Ferran Adrià, Matt Goulding and Kat Odell


The Japanese have a philosophy, wabi sabi, which embraces the beauty of imperfection. Perhaps that’s why so many artists and craftspeople in Japan admire perfection so much. When you acknowledge that inevitably your aspirations can never be fulfilled but you still strive to do so, something wonderfully humbling is taking place. It’s the quest that becomes the thing to embrace and enjoy, not the impossibility of the task.

Such thoughts might seem strange when considering Toshimichi Saito’s documentary about Japanese chefs but then he did title it The Pursuit of Perfection. When one thinks about Japanese cuisine, the presentation of the dishes immediately comes to mind. In a typical meal, a rice and a soup bowl will be accompanied by okazu or side dishes, as many as one wants. Each dish or bowl is separate, emphasizing the order and clean lines of the classic dinner approach. That’s even more obvious when eating in sushi restaurants, which are ubiquitous in Toronto and are even more spare in their presentations.

With that understanding, it’s clear that the best Japanese chefs, the ones creating the finest meals, would pursue their quest for perfection by embracing a linear path in both their career advancement and choice of cuisine. Saito mirrors this notion of clean lines by dividing his film into four segments featuring a quartet of brilliant chefs in Tokyo, profiling one after another. Surrounding these sections are contextualizing comments by El Bulli restaurant’s legendary master cook Ferran Adrià and food critics Matt Goulding and Kat Odell who talk knowledgably about Tokyo as a brilliant city for restaurants and about the chefs themselves.

First up is Takemasa Shinohara, a big, fit bald-headed charismatic man, who is the most prominent kaiseki chef in Tokyo. Since kaiseki is the most traditional of Japanese cuisines, Shinohara makes his difference by using as much locally sourced produce as possible and cooking in a style he calls “Cho-shu” or for “townspeople.” Of course, the meals he creates are hardly what one would get in towns or even most metropolises in Japan. But there’s a humility in his approach, which must translate into him making the most extraordinary dishes. Shinohara talks a lot about his homelife in a much smaller town and is quietly poetic when relating his love of nature and simpler past to what he tries to evoke in his dishes. Truly authentic and approachable, Shinohara is fun and it’s appropriate when he reveals that he would have become a karate master if he hadn’t embraced the idea of being a chef.

Saito’s second subject is a rarity, a woman who is a Japanese master chef. Natsuko Shoji was honoured as Asia’s best pastry chef in 2020 and this year she won Asia’s best female chef. Unlike Shinohara and the other two profiled chefs, her restaurant is quite small, only serving six customers per seating, and very exclusive. Still under 30, Shoji became famous for her fruit cakes, sold in beautiful boxes, like the kind you’d use for jewelry, and made each day with the freshest of product. Her work evolved from there to her personal restaurant called Eté, which serves exquisite courses like sea urchin tart with cured egg yolk and Jinhua ham. Shoji is a young woman totally obsessed with her work and achieving the unachievable: perfection.

For his third chef, Saito chose the truly professional and very upscale Yosuke Suga. Unlike the affable Shinohara and the personal Shoji, Suga embraces his public persona as a celebrity chef. Both his grandfather and father were restauranteurs and Suga was mentored by the acclaimed French chef Joël Robuchon. After two decades with Robuchon, he opened his own restaurant Sugalabo in 2015 for which he’s received universal acclaim. His work combines the French cuisine, which he’s mastered, with the apparently unadorned but truly gorgeous approach Suga has inherited as a Japanese cultural figure. Suga is a tougher figure, a task master, and believer in a classic restaurant style.

Saito’s fourth chef is a sushi master, Takaaki Sugita. Trained well in the art of choosing the right fish and knowing how to prepare each as a delicacy, Sugita launched a successful establishment and then moved it after a decade to the place where his wife’s family had their restaurant. Though it wasn’t built to be a sushi restaurant, Sugita has made it work with a brilliant staff and his own lovely manner. It should be mentioned: the sushi is extraordinary.

Are these chefs and their varied cuisines perfect? No, but I’d love to enjoy their attempts!

The Pursuit of Perfection is a very well-made doc and a great example of what the Toronto Japanese Film Festival will produce for audiences over the next two weeks: films worthy of appreciation and discussion.

The Pursuit of Perfection screens at TJFF on June 17 at 7:00pm.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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