Sushi (Jiro) and Scrooge McDuck

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1

I recently watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The documentary examines the practices of sushi shokunin Jiro Ono, an expert in the craft of preparation and service in a very strange field. Jiro works tirelessly to enhance the flavor naturally given by the raw fish, in what we could call “minimalism”. He uses ingredients that aid the natural flavor, rice that requires special tools and techniques to cook properly, and fish bought by his heir Yoshikazu, who will inherit the restaurant whenever the 87-year old master “departs” (as they often refer to death in the film).

Jiro does not rest; he makes sushi every single day and works a full week, if not more. Except for national holidays and funerals, Jiro does not care for anything else. His is a quest of relentless perfection. The three Michelin stars, the highest ranking that a restaurant could possibly obtain, isn’t enough for Jiro. He dreams of sushi in his sleep, and bounds out of bed to write the new flavors and combinations down on a piece of paper to experiment tomorrow. The tiny elements of the dining experience, through small adjustments and precision, reach a relative state of perfection in craft. Who could possibly notice such things as the position of napkins, or how to make sure every patron eats sushi at the exact rate as everyone else (he gives the women less food, let’s be frank)? You didn’t notice it – but your brain did.

Although Jiro may not know it, his work ethic comes from two different sources: that of the Japanese pursuit of mastery, AND the Deming Cycle. Named after an American statistician named W. Edward Deming, the Deming cycle involves never setting a standard for the quality of one’s work. In both school and the workforce, Japanese trends work according to the acronym PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, and Act. First, we plan by setting everything in its precise and accurate place for the work at hand. Second, we do the work to the best of our ability. Next, we check that work – does it fulfill our expectations? Did it surpass them? Wherever we find room for improve, we will work on that area. If we surpass our expectations, we set the goal post a little further. Lastly, we act on that information and change things accordingly. The cycle continues in an endless loop – in Jiro’s case, it remains the never-ending pursuit of perfect sushi.

In both school and the workforce, Japanese trends work according to this system. This means, in layman’s terms, that an employee or a school student should continually strive to beat their own best, continually improving in the process. But, of course, this comes with its own caveats; this doesn’t just mean “keep working until it’s better”; it means keep working forever. You will never hit that precise standard of quality, and certainly not before your boss/parents tell you that you can stop. Considering the considerable respect for superior and elders in Japanese culture (honorifics and all that jazz), and how horribly impolite/wrong it is perceived to stop working before you are told or allowed to stop, you’ve got a recipe for a work philosophy that means you never stop working until you die. You never stop improving at your work until you cannot improve. It certainly explains why an old guy beats everyone else at sushi production, hands down, if not for talent than for consistency and constant improvement.

It shouldn’t surprise you that video games, which came far after the advent of modern Japanese society, carries these traits. Most of their earliest video games, especially those in the arcade, demand that a player learn them inside and out. They limited your attempts because, in their wisdom, they knew that hard work and determination alone would develop the skills requires to beat the game. After all, they knew that worked in their lives – why not in video games as well?

Playing the WayForward/Capcom/Disney “remastering” of Ducktales, I see this with unbridled clarity. It might seem a simple and easy two-button game, but the cane pogo requires quite a lot of precision to work properly. This new release allows you to change the control from pressing down and the attack button while jumping to just holding the button down, but I find the original system works fine. As well, the highest difficulty requires you to use the ‘archaic” method anyway, so why bother with the other ones? The pogo sometimes “fails”, but I believe this has to do with my reflexes more than anything else – it’s a precise system, and failure results in death. Heck, it’s a lot less forgiving than Mega Man, even!

Ducktales Remastered

Regardless, the game doesn’t hold your hand. For all its nostalgia-baiting cutscenes and wonderful graphical enhancements, it still feels like a deathwish of a game in some spots. Sure, there’s checkpoints for convenience, but it requires a solid grip on the mechanics and great reflexes. Many challenges force you to think outside the box with a limited number of tools, and rarely (except in the new tutorial level) does the game bother to tell you what’s possible and what isn’t. You merely try and try again until you win, or until everything comes down to muscle memory and skill.

I enjoy that kind of experience, so I enjoy this kind of game. I also like Ducktales a heck of a lot, so that helps! All of these factors explain why, even though everyone calls it a classic, the review scores reflect a “modern game” mentality. Seriously, guys, this is the exact same game you played in 1989 – it may look better, but Ducktales remains an old school Capcom platformer with a complex (for its time, certainly) jumping mechanic. You should not expect a “remaster” to turn into a “remake”. Review the game for what it is, rather than what it is not: an exemplfication of Japanese gaming tropes and the Deming Cycle placed into a fun game with a razor-sharp polish.

They’re trials. If you do not like said trials in your entertainment, do not partake. Some of us do, and will continue to enjoy said arbitrary challenges. That does not mean we will not fail. And it certainly doesn’t mean we will not stumble. We should certainly strive towards perfection in our Christian life, to the small degree in which we are allowed. That includes every area, and passive entertainment media certainly don’t qualify for that same level of engagement. Think with your brain, not always your heart:

 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.

James 3

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.