“It’s a feeling like the warm, glowing memory of a lover. Ramen. Whispered in anticipation or delight, it’s enough to stir the emotions…you can never let it go.”
So go the first lines of the new film Ramen Heads. It seems to me it would have been faster and more direct to say, “We are not fucking kidding around about ramen here,” but that would have been a different tone, and it’s not my movie. Regardless, the take home message is the same: this documentary, a deep dive into the world of ramen-making in Japan, is serious as hell about ramen and the people who “craft” it. As long as it keeps its reverence in check, it’s an engaging look at a particular kind of fandom.
Although there is some consideration of different styles of ramen and a brief overview of the history of the dish, the film focuses primarily on Osamu Tomita, who is, by many accounts, the most acclaimed ramen chef in Japan. He’s an interesting restaurateur, and when we get a chance to see him later in Ramen Heads in his day-to-day life, he’s an even more interesting guy. Tomita falls in line with what we expect from those who are geniuses within their fields – he’s meticulous, a bit temperamental, moderately cocky, and unerringly reverential toward the thing that occupies all of his time, energy, and mental space. In his case, of course, that’s ramen.
Ramen might seem a strange focus for an obsession, or even a documentary, but there’s actually something here. Even setting aside our cultural interest in culinary expertise and sophisticated meal preparation, Ramen Heads demonstrates a passion for ramen in Japan that can only be described as cultish. Tomita himself readily claims the title of “ramen head,” explaining that, “If you’re not a ramen head yourself, you can’t possibly understand other ramen heads.” And the preparation and work he does to create the dish – the days of simmering and tweaking broth, the fine tuning of a four-flour blend for his noodles, the way he’s trained his body to remain in one spot while he cooks for 7 hours straight without food or bathroom breaks – is all in service to other ramen heads. Tomita specifically changed his reservation system to be easier and more efficient for those waiting to get in to his tiny, 10-seat shop. Every bowl of ramen is served with the words “thank you for waiting” (in Tomita’s shop and others), and though a chef with Tomita’s standing and following could almost certainly double or triple his prices and keep a line out the door, he takes pride in the fact that ramen has stayed true to its tradition as a working person’s meal. At the heart of his accomplishment is the fact that he’s providing “an amazing dining experience for $8.”
Ramen’s place in Japan’s cultural and culinary landscape and how it got there is interesting on its own merit (and this from someone whose most difficult culinary decision today will be whether to have Cheetos or Doritos for dinner). Given that, director Koki Shigeno does the film a disservice by allowing for a distractingly effusive voiceover script. Lines like, “a ramen that feels nostalgic even if the memories are not our own” and “soft and supple like a willow tree, time seems to stand still,” are so bizarrely over the top that it takes the viewer out of what is otherwise an engaging film. The score is equally out of place, with a soaring sound that would be more at home in a tale of epic heroism.
But if you can manage to roll your eyes and excuse the overly dramatic flourish, the core of Ramen Heads is a fun, interesting story about people geeking out about just how excited you can get about an $8 lunch made up of noodles, broth, and pork. And if you believe the narrator, possibly also nostalgia, though I wouldn’t count on your local ramen place to have that last one on the menu.