There are two acclaimed documentaries opening at Little Rock's indie dive-of-a-theater today — "Undefeated," a real life Friday Night Lights about an inner city turnaround coach doing his thing just down the road a piece, in a Memphis high school football field, and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a meditative homage to an 85-year-old man in Tokyo who makes the the best sushi in the world.
I've wanted to see "Undefeated" since its Sundance hype, so I'll definitely make it to Market Street sometime next week (these films are on till Thursday). I've actually seen "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," and it's a solid piece, albeit with noticeable flaws.
Jiro has been making sushi for 70 years. He operates a ten-seat restaurant in an underground nook in a Tokyo subway station. Jiro's joint is the one of two sushi restaurants that consistently receive three Michelin stars — the highest global honor bestowed upon any restaurant. More than a story with an arc, this is an incomplete profile of Jiro and a fetishized reflection of an traditional eastern lifestyle. It's also a collision sketch — the humble, repetitive journey of an uneducated working man quietly mastering his trade again and again, ramming against the showiness and elitism of one of the world's institutional high-culture makers and all of the pride, pressure and financial gain that goes along with that.
We never learn much of Jiro's life outside the restaurant. We meet his sons, who in orthodox Japanese fashion, have been reluctantly roped into following their father's trade. There are virtually no women in this film — no mothers, no sisters, no female chefs — only fathers and their absences, sons and male apprentices. And even with a nice dose of understated tension and fascinating glimpses of a big Japanese fish market and the inner workings of a top sushi kitchen, the subject feels too thin to carry a full 80 minutes. There's loads of b-roll and pretty camera tricks, which don't fully disguise the fact that this is a really a 60 minute film that needed to fit into the feature category at festivals.
Jiro is charming, the camera work is adept, the tuna glitters like rubies. If you can overlook the awkward scenes where live shrimp flip around on the counter ("you have to hold them tight or they will escape," a chef jokes) before being boiled alive, and live, panicked octupuses are shoved into tight plastic bags, tentacles protesting, then this film can be appreciated as a simple, suspended moment in which concepts of self-discipline, controlled emotions, preserved tradition and daily presence are intuitively explored.
"Undefeated" shows at 1:45, 4:00, 7:00, 9:00, and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" shows 2:00, 4:20, 7:00, 9:15 (the (late shows are only Friday and Saturday).