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Film Review: ‘Ramen Heads’

This food-forward look at Japan's national dish reveals the top recipes, and top chefs, who feed the masses daily.

SF Indie Fest

An appetite-inducing look at the ultimate Japanese comfort food, this unassuming culinary documentary centers on the reigning king of ramen, chef Osama Tomita of Tomita at Matsudo, whose obsessive approach to creating slurp-eliciously perfect soup and noodles makes him even more of a ramen head than the devotees of his cooking. Shooting over 15 months, director-writer Koki Shigeno shows Tomita at work, revealing his basic recipe and some of his secrets. He also provides an animated history of the noodles-and-broth dish — which started as a fast, cheap and hearty meal for workers — and profiles five other notable ramen restaurants, where the chefs each have their own philosophies and flavors. Select theatrical engagements should segue to longer life on various small-screen platforms.

For those whose knowledge of ramen is limited to the colorful instant noodle packets imported from Japan, this dissection of a really good ramen’s complex ingredients, as well as the many types of broth and exciting regional differences, will be mind-blowing. Indeed, while growing up as a rough, working-class kid, indifferent to his studies, Tomita didn’t really think about ramen until he was 20, when a flavorful meal of tsukemen (ramen with dipping noodles) at the restaurant of the legendary ramen chef Kazuo Yamagishi sparked an epiphany. He immediately offered himself as an apprentice to the master.

At his tiny, corner place in Chiba prefecture (about an hour from Tokyo), the constantly innovating Tomita has nabbed the title “Best Ramen of the Year,” from Japan’s most prestigious ramen guidebook for four years in a row. As we see when Shigeno enters Tomita’s prep kitchen, it the chef’s rich, dense broth, made from high-quality ingredients sourced from all over Japan, that really stands out. On the stove, various huge pots simmer, some for up to three days. Inside, the ingredients look like a witch’s brew. Garlic and gnarly bones, including a pig’s head, boil and bubble. Tomita combines three or four different broths for each day’s service, blending them as only he knows how, to achieve a density of flavor. If he’s not there to personally create the broth, the restaurant doesn’t open.

Equally important are Tomita’s handmade noodles, comprised of four different types of flour that he changes according to the seasons. He explains that he makes them extra-long for maximum slurpability, so the flavors explode like firecrackers in the mouth.

While Tomita’s 10-seat restaurant only serves from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., his hard-working apprentices open the doors at 7 a.m. so that aspiring customers can buy a pre-paid meal ticket with a designated seating time. Tomita estimates that this innovation has cut the long lines by one quarter and made his patrons happier.

Tomita is shown to be a strict taskmaster who orders apprentices to go outside for a while if he thinks their work isn’t up to snuff. After the restaurant closes, they learn by sharing and discussing the day’s tsukemen. After the master leaves, they stay on, often until 11 p.m., to meticulously clean the kitchen, since Tomita’s mantra is: “A dirty shop can’t serve delicious food.”

Shigeno takes a brief detour from Tomita to pay quick visits to other top ramen chefs, where he illustrates other styles of broth, including tonkotsu (roast pork), shio (salt-based), shoyu (soy), miso and niboshi (made from dried sardines). But he circles back to the Matsudo chef during a day off, when, decked out in surprising high-fashion gear, Tomita likes to spend his free time eating at rival ramen establishments.

The film concludes with Tomita planning a special 10th anniversary meal in collaboration with Shota Iida, whose namesake ramen shop is No. 1 in Kanagawa prefecture, and Yuki Onishi, the chef-owner of Tsuta, the first ramen shop to receive a Michelin star.

Marking the first theatrical feature by veteran TV documaker Shigeno, “Ramen Heads” may be a tad lacking in visual excitement, but it succeeds in imparting the ineffable appeal of Japan’s national dish. That task is aided by a knowledgeable albeit sometimes hyperbolic narration written and spoken by the helmer, and a pleasing score by Takashi Nakajima.

Film Review: ‘Ramen Heads’

Reviewed online, Chicago, March 14, 2018. (In Hot Docs, San Sebastian, IDFA film festivals.) Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary — Japan) A Gunpowder & Sky/Film Buff release (in the U.S.) of a Netzgen production in co-production with Generation Eleven Pictures. Producer: Arata Oshima. Co-producers: Yusuke Kamata, Takahisa Shino.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Koki Shigeno. Camera (color, HD): Hidenori Takahashi. Editor: Junichi Saito. Music: Takashi Nakajima.
  • With: Osama Tomita, Shota Iida, Yuki Ohnishi, Katsuji Matsouka, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Tom Takahashi.  
  • Music By: