People will wake up at 4:30 a.m. to stand in line for hours just to get a bowl of ramen at Osamu Tomita's tiny, 11-seater joint in Matsudo, Chiba.
Koki Shigeno's documentary, Ramen Heads, portrays Tomita as Japan's reigning lord of noodle soup, a four-time Best Ramen Chef champion, and a mentor to younger cooks. Shigeno wants us to see this traditionally working class lunch the way Tomita sees it: As an art. As a way of living. As a way of paying attention. It's all about balance! Timing! Pig skulls in big pots! And healing people. In the words of one septuagenarian ramen chef quoted in the film: "It's like being a doctor. If you heal the patient, they like you. If you don't, they consider you a quack."
To drive this point home, Shigeno really turns up the romance on the soup visuals. Lots of close-ups of rich broths pouring from huge ladles as violin music plays. Lots of shots of chefs very carefully laying silken strands of noodles into steaming bowls. People bring the bowl to their lips and close their eyes as if in prayer, and you begin to believe in things like Peace and Wholeness and Home again.
The visual meditations on the food satisfy on a primal level, and it's fascinating to learn about the ways different chefs make different kinds of ramen. There are so many types! And so many different philosophical approaches to forming each element of the dish.
Tomita, for instance, uses four different flours to make his unorthodox noodles (they're thicker and longer than average), and he carefully concocts his hearty broth from a mixture of other broths from days prior. Some use only red snapper skeletons for their broth, while others use a laundry list of dried fish and vegetables. Everyone has strong opinions about when the noodles must be removed from the boiling water, and everyone's pretty open about what they believe. None of the chefs—Tomita included—are shy about showing you their secret ingredient, because the real secret ingredient is unwavering dedication to noodle soup mastery, and only so many people really have that.
For those whose understanding of ramen begins and ends with the flavor packet variety common in grocery stores, this documentary provides a serviceable introduction to a hundred-year-old dish that is still being constantly re-imagined by new generations of chefs.
However, as a character and a vessel for storytelling, Tomita doesn't really hold much interest. He's an exacting chef and a taskmaster who runs an extremely successful restaurant. That's about it.
By the end, I was still left wondering about a few unaddressed (or under-addressed) cultural aspects of ramen-headedness that seemed rich for exploration. A vast majority of the people—if not all—lining up at odd hours for this soup appeared to be men. There are women in the film. One, introduced by her restaurant, Ichifuku, is briefly profiled as the chef at whose miso ramen tastes the most like the one mom used to make. But the phenomenon of the "ramen head"—both in the kitchen and at the lunch counter—appears to be a lonely Japanese dude thing.
Also, the consumer culture surrounding the soup sounded intense and almost scholarly, and I wanted to learn more about it. Things like ramen magazines, authoritative online ramen databases, and ramen twitter are mentioned in passing, as if they're just part of everyone's day-to-day. But I understand if the filmmakers assumed this to be the case. It is a really good soup.
Ramen Heads opens tonight at SIFF.