Documentaries: Ramen Heads (2018) - Reviewed

Edward slurps up the new documentary Ramen Heads 

At first glance, it might seem unlikely that one could be bowled over by a documentary about noodles, but Ramen Heads is a fine broth of a film that spoons out all you need to know about the care and feeding of this signature Japanese dish. Few films I have feasted on recently are as mouth-watering as this one, which allows viewers to sample vicariously those delectable vittles served up in those tiny ramenya (noodle bars) that are ubiquitous in Japan.

In the first half of Ramen Heads, director Koki Shigeno visits a handful of ramenya in cinema verité style, allowing us to watch several of Japan’s gourmet ramenologists (variously known as ramen gods or ramen demons) as they create their slurpalicious concoctions from scratch. Being a ramen chef is not just a job, it is a lifelong calling, as evidenced by the story of a septuagenerian who has been dishing out his noodle dishes for nearly sixty years, having originally worked as an apprentice to his late father. Viewers observe in deliciously close detail the soup-makers at work, as well as the quirks and eccentricities of the master chefs who typically put in 18-hour days, from visiting produce markets at sunrise to finally shuttering their shops near midnight.

It soon becomes clear that ramen is nothing short of sublime, an art form that demands a passionate commitment by its creators, one that never fails to leave its consumers with “infatuated gazes,” in the words of one of the chefs here profiled.

The second half of the film trails Osamu Tomita, considered the reigning king--or should I say top noodle?--of ramen, as he reveals every single step of his obsessive approach to creating the perfect dish while searching relentlessly for the finest ingredients. Clad in a spiffy Louis Vuitton jacket and sporting classy rings and chains, Tomita traipses around Tokyo visiting other ramenya, then is seen collaborating with a dream team of two other star chefs as they create extra-special ramen dishes for his tenth anniversary in business.

Viewers also learn a little history, as the fact that ramen, like many other Japanese things, is not native to the country; it was introduced by Chinese chefs during the nineteenth century Meiji period, when Japan opened its doors to foreign influences after centuries of isolation. In the immediate post-WWII era, ramen emerged as a staple of the Japanese diet when people needed something quick and hearty to fill their stomachs while engaged in the monumental task of rebuilding the country. Today, with an infinite array of flavors and ingredients, ramen has become something of an epicurean delight for the masses.

So, for those who can stomach a 93-minute dissertation on noodles, Ramen Heads provides a delightful glimpse into a world unto itself whose secrets are now revealed in all their tasty glory. 

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-Edward Moran