Ramen Heads (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The deep cultural ties Japan has to ramen cuisine and the subculture around it, makes for an interesting topic for a documentary. Also: fans of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Search for General Tso have a trilogy!
One cannot come away anything but impressed at the tireless, devout, hard work these chefs, and the film's main subject, Osamu Tomita, dedicate to their craft.
I can almost guarantee you will be Yelp'ing or mapping the nearest Ramen house after watching this movie.
This is a film that may not have huge commercial appeal outside of the arthouse crowd or those who consider themselves "foodies."
The narration comes across so serious, it takes some viewers completely out of the film.
Even at 93 minutes, the movie could be considerably shorter, or have more effectiveness as a documentary short film.
Though this might work more effectively as a documentary short film, there is plenty to smile about and take away from the movie you never knew you needed – Ramen Heads, a film about the art and craftsmanship of ramen chefs and all that goes into making their traditional Japanese cuisine.
Written and directed by Koki Shigeno, who also narrates the film, the first 40-plus minutes of the film focuses on Osamu Tomita, Japan’s “King of Ramen”, whose 10-seat restaurant, Tomita, has been awarded an award akin to being named “Best Ramen Restaurant” for multiple years. Tomita’s ramen is so popular, patrons line up for hours before the establishment opens. The demand is so large that he has created a ticketing/reservation system to handle all potential customers.
And just for a moment of clarity: We are not talking about those Top Ramen packages in the back of your pantry.
Very quickly, we realize that Tomita has devoted his entire life to this work. If he is unable to be in his establishment, the restaurant does not open. On his rare days off, he visits sometimes two or three other ramen houses and samples new recipes. Eventually, we learn he is married with three young children, though it becomes unclear how much time he actually spends with them.
In a scene where they are out together as a family, they are…(wait for it)…having ramen in a neighboring restaurant.
Shigeno eventually mixes in a half-dozen more chefs and cooks into his film. One chef, over 70 years old, generally turns out over 1,000 bowls of ramen each day in his restaurant. Not surprisingly, the different cooks all have different takes on the same basic recipe. Shigeno shows us that the broth and the ingredients used to populate it make all the difference. Essentially, there’s plenty of ramen to go around for everyone and, at times, you cannot help but wonder, does anyone ever eat anything else?
Ramen Heads focuses on the meticulous approach these chefs go through to make their food distinct and unique. Tomita, whose noodles are made from a mixture of four specific types of flour, references the viscosity of his broth, insists on making it himself, and informs us that “I have a staring contest with the cooking pot. The soup gives me the message whether it is ready or not.”
Shigeno decribes Tomita’s broth as a “mudbath,” full of vegetables, spices, meats (including a full pig's head), etc. We see him turn a brownish, mud puddle-like liquid, in a large cooking pot, into an amber-hued soup that looks perfect when poured into a bowl.
Tomita, with his approach, his blind expectation of perfection, and his stern, unwavering demands of professionalism, presentation, and performance of his apprentice chefs and staff, calls to mind the folks once described by author Malcolm Gladwell as “Outliers,” individuals who commit 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to something, thereby becoming world-class leaders in whatever task they set out to accomplish.
While Shigeno’s film never explores the personal cost of what Tomita’s success may mean to those closest to him, or to him personally, Ramen Heads, with a overly serious narration with a verbal form of that "mudbath" viscosity described above, still offers an intriguing glimpse into all the time, energy, and hard work that goes into creating a consumable that customers slurp up each and every day.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Osamu Tomita, Shôa Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Yûki Ohnishi, Tom Takahashi.
Director: Koki Shigeno
Written by: Koki Shigeno
Release Date: March 16, 2018