Film Review: Sushi: The Global Catch

Engaging, informative and mercifully non-frantic documentary about the exploding global appetite for sushi and how such popularity threatens coveted blue fin tuna and the ocean’s ecosystem. A handsome look across several countries and continents

It could be said (by the pun-inclined) that Kino Lorber is on a “sushi” roll. Its current surprise art-house success is Jiro Dreams of Sushi and on its heels comes Sushi: The Global Catch.

Emulating what narrative drama does best, the doc is really about love gone bad. In this case, it’s the global mania for sushi and how such passion is endangering not just the blue fin tuna—the “Porsche of the ocean”—but the ocean’s delicate ecosystem that sustains lesser marine life that the predator tuna atop the marine pyramid requires.

Sushi: The Global Catch covers many aspects of the phenomenon—from positive (the food’s popularity and precision preparation) to alarmist (the threat of fish depletion), showing happy consumers, concerned activists for sustainability, and many in between. It’s a through-line from the basic ritual of catching and wrangling the large blue fins to the pleas of activists and scientists for sustainability.

Filmmaker Mark Hall captures some high-end restaurants, beginning with Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Sushiko, well over a century old, and its chef/owner Mamoru Sugiyama. He trained for long years but laments the challenge now of gaining access to wild, not farmed fish. Also shown are several popular, “assimilated” eateries like that of Austin chef Tyson Cole, whose “New American” approach strays a bit to accommodate Southwestern tastes.

Begun decades ago by Tokyo street vendors, the sushi craze has now grown worldwide in high and low-end eating establishments (Lodz in Poland and San Francisco are among the other cities visited), at sports events, from food trucks, and even as portable, handy-dandy sushi popper rolls in tubes. (Unseen in Sushi: The Global Catch is that even movie theatre concessions have “caught” on.)

The doc is full of interesting tidbits. Sushi’s ignored rice component, for instance, isn’t chopped liver. In fact, it’s as important to sushi as the fish itself, says one expert. And proper rice preparation requires two years of training. (At least one website proclaims that the word “sushi” refers to the rice; the more coveted raw fish component is actually “sashimi.”) Also central to the doc’s sushi story are the incredible knife skills required. And wasabi, often served with sushi, isn’t just for flavor; the hot mustard kills germs, E-coli and bacteria.

Considerable footage is devoted to buyer/broker/auctioneer finagling at Tokyo’s famed, sprawling Tsukiji market for the best fish and cuts, where poking, focused inspectors feel for oil content and look out for color change. It was in the early ’70s, by way of Japan Airlines, that sushi took off, as JAL came up with ways to transport huge quantities of the frozen fish across oceans.

The downside of the craze gets plenty of attention. The source of the alarm isn’t just that the tuna populace is down 20 to 30 percent from what it was decades ago, according marine scientists, but that China—with well over a billion mouths to feed—has shown a growing appetite for sushi. The doc shows that there are many who care about the problem who are active in trying to find solutions: A veteran Japanese fisherman in a small fishing village is satisfied with his small haul of just one fish for a day.

The film still maintains a tone of hope. Many restaurants are now serving “faux sushi” and there’s a growing awareness of the importance of sustainability. As one environmentalist puts it, “sustainable” means “use” but not “use up.” And should wild fish disappear, farming or hatcheries for breeding fish in captivity (propagated tuna, for instance) may fill the gap. Among those working in this area is wealthy German-born Australian Hagen Stehr, who is spending millions on trying to breed the fish at very early stages. Also on the environmental side is San Francisco chef Casson Trenor, a Greenpeace advocate, whose popular restaurant is the world's first “sustainable” sushi establishment, meaning he won’t serve endangered fish like blue fin tuna. But marine experts perceiving the problem observe that, no surprise, governments and regulators have been largely useless in protecting the fish population.

Sushi: The Global Catch is beautifully shot on Japanese, Australian, Singapore, Polish, U.S. and other locations. The lovely music score is as subtle as a sushi plate and all points are clearly conveyed and measured. Despite its warnings, this smart, well-intentioned doc may send viewers out into streets looking for the nearest sushi place.