Friday, April 20, 2018

Ramen Heads: You’re Supposed to Slurp

Osamu Tomita is a lot like Jiro Ono, but he dreams of ramen instead of sushi. Ramen is so much his thing, Tomita visits other ramen restaurants on his day off. It is mostly just to eat, rather than for purposes of industrial espionage. For the fourth year in a row, his ramen has been recognized as Japan’s best, so his competitors are more likely to steal from him, rather than vice versa. Yet, he boldly welcomes viewers into his kitchen to watch him prepare the next day’s broth and noodles in Koki Shigeno’s documentary Ramen Heads (trailer here), which opens today in Chicago.

Ramen is probably the most quintessentially Japanese meal. Originally, it was cheap but filling food the large class of struggling post-war laborers could afford, but it has evolved into a culinary art form. Yet, all the real ramen restaurants are small neighborhood establishments. To the uninitiated, Tomita’s place in Matsudo, Chiba looks like clean, unassuming establishment, but there are always long lines in the morning to buy timed-entry tickets for a table.

We see Tomita mix his broth, knead his noodles, and boil his bamboo shoots (none of those are euphemisms). Perhaps astute ramen chefs will pick up a step or two from what Tomita shows, but his secrets are safe with us. In fact, we feel like we more than sufficiently get it after a while. Fortunately, Shigeno eventually opens the film up a little, introducing us to some other notable ramen chefs and giving us a sly animated history of ramen. Frankly, Shigeno could have spent more time with the other ramen masters, because some of them must have stories to tell, especially seventy-two-year-old Katsuji Matsouka, who will nonchalantly sling 800-1,600 bowls of ramen each day at his Tsukiji Market stall.

Shigeno, a well-established director of Japanese TV food programming, gives viewers an insider’s perspective, which is obviously intended for hard-core ramen heads. However, he captures some of the vibe and every day details of Japanese ramen eating. This would be a good film to stream before visiting the country as a tourist, even if you have no intention of eating at Tomita’s shop.

Regardless, it is always refreshing to see someone like Tomita, who has a passion they are happy to share. Frankly, Ramen Heads is more accessible and energetic than the weirdly over-hyped Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but not nearly as fun as Mirai Kinishi’s Kampai! For the Love of Sake. Recommended for foodies and armchair travelers, Ramen Heads opens today (4/20) at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago (and also screens 4/22 and 4/28 as part of Udine’s Far East Film Festival).