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‘Ramen Heads’ (review)

Produced by Arata Ôshima, Yûsuke Kamada
Directed by Koki Shigeno
Featuring Osama Tomita, Shota Iida,
Yuki Ohnishi, Katsuji Matsouka, Kumiko Ishida,
Katsuya Kobayashi, Tom Takahashi

 

The title of this fascinating documentary, while not exactly a misnomer, is a bit misleading. Ramen Heads are fanatical foodies who love to seek out the best ramen noodles and broths in Japan.

We do get to see a handful of these folks – including a look at a Ramen Festival – but the main focus of Ramen Heads for the vast majority of its running time is chef Osamu Tomita, widely considered to be the finest ramen chef in Japan.

Tomita gives the filmmakers seemingly total access to his life and work; he is even happy about sharing the recipes for his revered and multiple-award winning broth and noodles, which is a rarity among chefs.

For the broth, Tomita takes an almost everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach: he boils a pig’s head, chicken bones, whole dried fish and a great deal more into what looks like nasty dishwater but is apparently so delicious it can bring tears to the eyes of many Ramen Heads.

Tomita also likes his noodles to be slightly thicker and longer than standard ramen noodles, for the all-important trait of “slurpability”.

Watching Tomita work is endlessly interesting – his life basically IS ramen. On his days off he eats at other ramen noodle houses, often taking his wife and three kids with him (his eldest son, unsurprisingly, wants to follow in dad’s footsteps, though in a touching moment of candor he admits he has terrible taste and needs to fix his tongue before embarking on a career as a ramen noodle chef).

There is a very interesting revelation of how Tomita manages to serve the many, many customers without asking them to wait in line for hours on end. He developed an innovative, pre-purchased “meal ticket” system that cuts down considerably on lines outside his restaurant.

We do step outside of Tomita’s life for an eye-opening history of ramen in Japan (being a stupid American, I always thought ramen noodles were just the instant kind that were the mainstays of budget-conscious college students). Ramen was – and still is – culturally important in Japan, and was an invaluable food source in the years following WWII.

We also do get to see other chefs put their own personal spin on ramen noodles and broth; there are miso-based broths, those made with sardines, others with red snapper.

A real treat comes near the end of the film as Tomita enlists the help of two other revered and renowned Japanese ramen chefs to develop a once-in-a-lifetime broth, concocted by the three of them working in concert, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tomita’s restaurant. It’s a real pleasure seeing these chefs surprise one another, experimenting with top-drawer ingredients, without any ego issues.

Fans of the recent Netflix series, Ugly Delicious (highly recommended, by the way) should eat this doc up (sorry…). It’s a delightful peek into a beloved Japanese food – and culture surrounding it — that, to me at least, was mostly brand new.

 

For screening information, visit RamenHeadsFilm.com

 

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