I remember the first time I ever had a proper bowl of Japanese ramen. I was twenty-one and studying abroad in Tokyo for a semester. Late one night my dorm-leader suggested we hop on our bikes and follow him to one of his favorite spots in the city. We twisted our way through sidewalks and forest paths before arriving at a nondescript little shop and backroad. From the street you wouldn’t know it was anything different from the myriad office buildings and storage facilities dotting the lonely street. But stepping inside you were knocked over by the sweet heat of cooking and the fragrances of pork and broth. Taking my bowl, I sat down at a long table between exhausted salarymen happily slurping mouthfuls of noodles and spraying glistening speckles of fat over the counter. I carefully plucked a pork medallion with my chopsticks, swirled it around the noodles, lifted it, blew the hot steam away, and took a bite. Ever since that day I have spent my life pursuing the perfect bowl of ramen. At its best, ramen is the perfect synthesis of delicate and hearty flavors, a dish at once cheap, filling, fun to eat, and satisfying. And though ramen has its legions of devotees in the West, our devotions pale in comparison to the rabid love the Japanese people have for the dish.
Koki Shigeno’s Ramen Heads explores this subculture of Japanese ramen freaks and what drives the lunatic artisans who’ve devoted their lives to creating the perfect bowl of noodles. It centers on Osamu Tomita, a chef from Matsudo, Chiba affectionately known as Japan’s reigning “King of Ramen.” The first half serves as a portrait for Osamu’s creative process and his strictly regulated daily regimen. We watch as he obsesses over mixing the perfect broth, selecting the specific flours for the noodles, and lovingly wrapping the cooked noodles into long wavy ropes before presenting them to the customer. Every day is a search for perfection, and this perfection comes at a cost. Osamu and his staff have all conditioned their bodies so they can stand at a single station for an entire business day without moving or going to the bathroom. Minor infractions get apprentices banished from the shop. And in one of the film’s most telling scenes, we meet Osamu’s oldest son who at eight years old already seems smothered by the expectations of continuing his father’s shop. The poor child can barely go thirty seconds without being berated on his uselessness as a cook.
The second half of the film opens up into a larger portrait of ramen as a dish, beginning with a strangely compelling history lesson that follows the dish’s origins as a Chinese import, its post-war transformation into comfort food for an impoverished people, the creation of regional variations, and its ascendancy as one of Japan’s most beloved culinary exports. (Never-mind the occasionally xenophobic illustrations which depict the original Chinese dish as filthy and poisonous and Americans as brutish conquerors.) Osamu takes us on a tour of several of his favorite ramen shops—one of which is kept anonymous so it won’t become too popular—before introducing us to a number of other famous chefs who help him collaborate on a super-ramen to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his shop opening.
Though a valiant effort, Ramen Heads can’t quite live up to the heights of the truly great Japanese food porn docs. Osamu simply isn’t as interesting or maniacal as the curmudgeonly Jiro Ono in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). Though many of the ramen money shots make our mouths water, the cinematography is a far cry from the elegiac beauty of Erik Shirai’s The Birth of Saké (2015). The film is at its best when it takes a step back from the food itself and marvels at the simple dignity of its cooks and assistants. None are more fascinating than a lone chef who works at the same shop he’s owned for half a century and who still makes ramen the old fashioned way complete with giant earthenware pots used to boil water. He’s largely dismissive of the ramen culture the film so idolizes. As he stands over a pot of cooking noodles, he crosses his arms and summarizes his entire culinary outlook. “Back then, when Japan was rebuilding after the war, it was just a working man’s meal. You would eat ramen and head to work…you were lucky just to be eating at all. Ramen was a hearty meal that filled you up…you need food to live and work, that’s where our ramen comes from.”
You can’t argue with that.