A documentary by Koki Shigeno. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
The story of the ramen empire is one of constant rise with no fall in sight. In Ramen Heads, it’s told through the seemingly narrow lens of one proponent of that dish that is so much more than a noodle soup.
It helps when that subject is Osamu Tomita, named Japan’s best ramen maker for the past four years. He may be the top ramen chef, but he sure doesn’t make Top Ramen—even if the largest share of his customers do seem to be college-age males. His dinky corner shop in Matsudo, an unassuming Tokyo suburb, only has 10 seats, but people start lining up at 7 a.m. to buy tickets to Ramen Tomita, which opens at 11. With his military haircut and brooding mien, he oversees numerous shaven-headed apprentices—monks of umami, you could say. This full-time obsessive spends three days developing his rich broths and is just as strict with noodle-making.
“He could afford to let a few things go,” says his wife, in a very brief at-home visit. But we are talking about a guy who visits the competition to “slurp the hell out of their noodles”, he admits. First-time director Koki Shigeno, who also narrates in soothingly authoritative, slightly awed tones (backed by appropriately triumphal music), spent more than a year focused on Tomita. So it’s somewhat jarring when halfway into the brisk 90-minute movie, we switch gears to visit some other stellar cooks, all with radically different recipes and operational styles. All are seemingly more laid-back than our in-house perfectionist, to whom we return for a multichef cook-off.
Along the way, we also get a niftily animated rundown of the surprisingly recent history of this Japanese staple. In fact, it appears to have been brought there in the early 20th century by Chinese food vendors, and by labourers who ended up in Japan after toiling in North America. After the end of the Second World War, its everything-in-one-bowl ethos took on more significance, and urgency, and the narrator says it still carries “a hint of sadness”. Just another part of ramen’s existential deliciousness, no doubt.