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‘Ramen Heads’ is an enjoyable jaunt targeted at a niche fanbase

Chef Osamu Tomita in his ramen shop

People often take for granted things that are a part of their everyday lives and ignore their meaningful origins in lieu of more pressing details like jobs and family.

“Ramen Heads,” named after the group of die-hard foodies that make ramen a cornerstone of their lives, is the first film from TV documentary director Koki Shigeno. It delves into an important aspect of everyday life in Japan that may get overlooked: ramen.

The first 40 minutes of the documentary act as a biographical introduction to award-winning ramen chef Osamu Tomita. Tomita is eccentric and takes his craft very seriously, but simultaneously discusses at great lengths his love for cooking ramen and what led him down that path.

The documentary skillfully walks viewers through what goes into making a bowl of ramen. Tomita is extremely forthcoming with his methods -- a trait that is apparently not shared among many ramen chefs -- and he is a great guide for this first half of the documentary.

The viewer is shown how the broth and noodles are made as well as the numerous additional ingredients that need to be imported from different parts of Japan in order to make Tomita’s legendary bowl. The process itself is engaging and provides another insight into Tomita’s meticulous methods: he combines a number of different broths and uses several different flours to make his noodles.

Given his pedigree, Tomita has many apprentices who train under him in hopes of opening their own ramen shops someday. The apprentices are also given a spotlight to further flesh out their mentor, describing him (lovingly) as a very difficult and expectant teacher, criticizing even the slightest mistakes.

What is confusing about this documentary is its inconsistency. After what seemed to be a feature based solely on Tomita, a self-proclaimed ramen head and his cult-like fanbase, the filmmakers shift sharply and start to traverse all over Japan exploring the methods used by different chefs.

In this 30-minute intermission from Tomita, the viewer is introduced to about a half-dozen more ramen shops, which serve as vignettes into different methods and styles of making ramen.

This is quickly followed by a montage explaining the history and origins of ramen in Japan. It is well-crafted and concise, but its positioning in the waning half of the film makes it seem out of place. It could have been just as effective at the beginning of the film, as it does a great job of explaining the spectrum of styles in ramen-making.

After this strange second act, the film returns to Tomita, where the filmmakers provide some insight into the chef’s life outside the shop. This ultimately serves no other purpose than to illustrate the normalcy of this apparent ramen icon. Besides a penchant for flashy style -- Tomita sports a rather flamboyant Louis Vuitton jacket around Japan -- he lives a relatively mundane life with his wife and children. Reflective of his obsession, he spends his free time poring over ramen magazines for tips and visiting the shops of his past apprentices.

With the life and practice of Tomita well-examined, there is little left to explore. The film concludes with Tomita and two of his friends -- also celebrated ramen chefs -- joining forces to craft a once in a lifetime experience for ramen heads all over Japan. The three decide to combine the strengths from all of their signature bowls to create a unique super-ramen. While nothing new is learned here, the viewers get to watch the old friends have fun while using some of the most expensive ingredients in the country.

The result is a seemingly mythical bowl of ramen, which attracts lines of ramen heads going well outside the doors of the cramped ten-seat ramen shop. Many of the patrons had woken up before the sun rose to even have an opportunity of tasting this one-time dish. While this closing segment isn’t insightful, it is fun.

“Ramen Heads” explores a fascinating subculture of Japanese cuisine, but doesn’t offer much insight into ramen itself. It is more successful as a profile of a lone ramen chef than it is as an all-encompassing dive into Japanese foodie culture. There is something here for everyone, but will certainly be more successful as a cult-classic for ramen heads at home.

Grade: C+

Ramen Heads was released March 23rd exclusively at Landmark’s E Street Cinema

bermer@theeagleonline.com


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