The documentary Sushi: The Global Catch tries to be two things at once: an international survey of the way sushi is marketed, prepared, and consumed, and an argument for sustainability, particularly with regard to the bluefin tuna population. These threads are related, but one nonetheless takes away from the other. There’s a difference, for example, between peeking behind the scenes at various sushi restaurants or knife manufacturers, and delving into the imbalance between increased consumer demand for tuna and its dwindling supply. Director Mark Hall is evidently passionate about the latter issue, but he fumbles by offering a broad overview instead, as if he needs to explain the entire phenomenon of sushi before he can get into the problems it raises. The result is an excess of throat-clearing before the real song starts.
The first third is a listless shambles, a patchwork of dry interviews with sushi chefs from Tokyo to San Francisco to Austin, and glimpses into the world’s largest fish market. Some bits of information are eye-opening, like the seven years it takes for an aspiring sushi chef to finally get behind the bar—two of which are spent learning how to make rice properly!—but the mysteries of sushi artistry cannot be penetrated in a few quick scenes. The film improves once Hall shifts to the tenuous market for bluefin tuna, which is threatened by an 80 percent drop in the fish’s population in the last 20 or 30 years as worldwide sushi consumption has metastasized.
The best scene in Sushi: The Global Catch features an argument between the owner of Tataki, a sustainable-sushi restaurant in San Francisco that offers alternatives to tuna, and an Australian who farms tuna as a way to meet demand without contributing to the species’ extinction. Both men are keenly interested in figuring out a future for bluefin tuna—which has become so precious that a single fish brought $400,000 at auction—but they argue sharply over the efficacies of a blanket ban vs. an alternative way to give consumers what they want. It’s the one time the film breaks from its mode of sleepy awareness-raising and taps into the debates currently at play among fishermen, conservationists, and restaurateurs. Just providing information, like a list of helpful websites and apps in the closing credits, isn’t enough.