fter watching the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we got to thinking how similar ikebana is to sushi.
The film was subtitled in English but two important words were not translated but kept in the Japanese original: umami and shokunin.
Umami has almost become a loanword (just like "sushi"!) incorporated in the English language. It normally refers to the "savoriness" of food. The different tastes and aromas of the ingredients are carefully combined then presented to provide a superb culinary experience. We learn the paradox: the simpler the food, the more difficult it is to prepare! What can be more simple, more minimalist than simply putting uncooked fish on rice? Yet we realize, it is not that easy. The fish needs to be sliced just so; the rice needs to be steamed with the correct pressure; the temperatures of rice and fish when the sushi is served should be just right, etc.
Ikebana is also very simple...a few branches, a few flowers. Every one of them has its place in the arrangement. Nothing more, nothing less. We often use the analogy of a choir vs a duet. In a big singing group, if one person sings off-key, he can actually stay "hidden" and perhaps lip-sync. The performance is not affected all that much. In a duet, if one person sings out of tune, then the whole performance is ruined. In a huge bouquet of flowers, an errant bloom could be hiding somewhere in the back but still the arrangement would be OK. In ikebana, a single misplaced stem will be fatal. Jiro's style of sushi is similar...it is just sushi set on a plain black lacquer plate. No fancy decorations, no distractions...only umami. When we view a good ikebana arrangement, like putting one of Jiro's sushi in our mouths, we experience a kind of umami.
Loosely translated, the word shokunin means "craftsman". But the film did not use the English word. To grasp the Japanese sense of the word, we must think of the craftsman of medieval times, when one traversed long years from apprentice to journeyman to finally, master craftsman. One's craft was one's life. A shokunin practices his craft, day in day out. Yet it is not a mere repetition of motions, not mass production. Be it a sheet of washi (Japanese paper), a samurai sword or a bamboo basket, every piece contains a part of theshokunin's spirit. Every time the shokunin creates something, he is always thinking of how he can make it better. He is forever perfecting his craft. So it is with Jiro. After more than 70 years of making sushi, he still thinks there is room for improvement. He was once told that sushi was a very old cuisine and whatever could be improved had already been done. He disagrees and continues to work on his "craft" and even dreams about it (thus, the title of the film!) There is no shortcut to becoming a shokunin. It is not a matter of taking the required courses and getting the diploma. The skill and instinct cannot be put down in a textbook. They are honed only by never-ending practice.
In ikebana, you may be doing the basic variations over and over again. It could look like you are doing the same thing, but really each one is different. No two branches will ever be identical, just as no two seasons will be the same. Every arrangement is a new encounter, a new challenge. Anyone can follow the rules and arrange the branches in the proper lengths and angles...in the same way as anyone can cook rice and put a slice of fish on top...but the person with shokunin spirit sees beyond this. Always the question is how I can entice all the beauty out of what I have in front of me. The ikebana master will have conversations with the flowers. She gently coaxes the plants to show her their best faces, their preferred angles. This cannot be learned from reading the textbook...the only way is through practice, perseverance and proper guidance from someone who has been on the same journey.
One last word: Do not watch this film on an empty stomach! (^_^)
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. Directed by David Gelb. Magnolia Pictures, 2011.