'Ramen Heads': Film Review

Ramen Heads Still 1 -Chef Osamu Tomita -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Gunpowder and Sky
A treat for obsessives, not a newbie introduction.

Koki Shigeno's debut doc focuses mainly on a chef whose funky ramen broth is famous throughout Japan.

A good-looking debut that's as obsessive as it sounds, Koki Shigeno's Ramen Heads celebrates those for whom Japan's famous dish is anything but a simple bowl of noodles and broth. Devoting most of its attention to the fanatic Osamu Tomita, whose shop has been named the nation's best four years running, the documentary finds a chef whose extreme recipe doesn't fit in any existing category. More narrowly targeted than most foodie docs, and not the ramen encyclopedia it may sound like, this one will fare best on streaming services.

Tomita's namesake 10-seat restaurant is in Matsudo, about an hour's train ride from central Tokyo, and is so popular he had to invent an automated reservation system to cut down on the wait. Even so, customers arrive as early as 6:30 a.m., buying tickets from a vending machine for a pre-paid meal later in the day. Nobody complains, even the guy who cheerfully reports waking up at 4:15 to get there on time.

Inside, the master — who apprenticed with the late ramen legend Kazuo Yamagishi — prepares ramen in the tsukemen style his teacher is said to have invented: cold noodles served in one bowl, broth and other ingredients on the side for dipping. Tomita's broth, a gloopy liquid the narrator says "looks like a mud bath," bears little resemblance to that found in bowls elsewhere. Every day, the chef mixes liquid from four batches, each of which has simmered for a different time, to get just the right "density of flavor."

When Shigeno asks to see the prep kitchen, Tomita happily complies. He says that other chefs who protect their "secret recipes" are actually just hiding the fact that they do nothing unusual. Unlike them, Tomita throws everything from whole onions and garlic to heads of pigs in his stock pots; he shows us three different varieties of dried fish he adds, from three different regions, and says he's always looking for new things to include. Taking the noodles just as seriously, he uses four different flours to make them, and varies the proportions each season. Looking for the ultimate "slurpability," he makes them extra long, so they won't go quietly into the diner's mouth.

We spend about half the film watching this process and seeing how Tomita's shop operates. Then we take a whirlwind tour of the nation's other ramen styles — shio made just from red snapper here; a rare woman-run shop slinging miso broth there; a septuagenarian at the Tsukiji fish market who reportedly does a higher volume than any other ramen joint around. At Ramen Fukuju, an ancient place that doesn't even open during lunch hour, the narrator poetically finds "a ramen that feels nostalgic, even if the memories are not our own."

This tour, and the comic-book style history that follows, would need to be much more thorough to sate truly curious American ramen buffs. But that's not really the movie's point. Soon we're back with Tomita, hanging out with him on two of his days off, marveling at the ultra-expensive duds he wears outside of the kitchen and being less-than-surprised that this single-minded man samples two or three other ramen shops a day whenever he's away from his own. In its last scenes, the movie watches him team up with two other celebrated chefs to make something special for his shop's tenth anniversary. The line stretched around the block for this "once in a lifetime ramen," which looks like it was worth the wait.

Production company: Netzgen
Distributor: FilmBuff
Director: Koki Shigeno
Producer: Arata Oshima
Director of photography: Hidenori Takahashi
Editor: Junichi Saito
Composer: Natsumi Tabuchi

In Japanese
93 minutes