Ramen Heads Review: An Unbalanced Dish of a Documentary

Koki Shigeno's documentary tries hard to be the next Jiro Dreams of Sushi; however, unlike a good bowl of ramen, the documentary is not as good as the sum of its parts.

While most major US cities enjoy a thriving food culture filled with authentic Japanese noodle joints, when you say “ramen,” the average American is apt to think of the instant ramen associated with broke college students. While instant ramen is a worldwide phenomenon, the dish is actually more complex and flavorful than most Westerners realize. It’s basically to Japan what the hamburger is to America; there are a plethora of styles, toppings and ways to eat it. It may have started as a quick and cheap working class meal, but it is now a cultural trademark.

Director Koki Shigeno uses Ramen Heads to introduces us to renowned ramen chef Osamu Tomita, whose ramen shop has won the coveted prize of the best ramen shop in Japan multiple times. Shigeno offers us a glimpse into the world of a man who is completely consumed by ramen and ritual. Tomita’s routine is strictly regimented: he travels to his shop at the same time via the same route daily, keeps the secret to mixing his broth to himself, and sends his apprentices outside when they displease him. Likewise, on his days off, he visits various ramen shops around town. One wonders if the man has eaten anything other than ramen in his life.

Ramen Heads also visits a few other ramen shop owners besides Tomita, though it devotes less time to them. These other proprietors vary from chefs who view ramen as an art (in the same vein as Tomita) to those who view ramen as merely a job. One chef, Fukuju, who runs a family owned ramen shop in business for decades, muses that ramen changes to suit the needs of the time. His shop was founded when ramen was merely quick and easy fuel for workers in post-war Japan. Now it has been elevated to a dish that can be honored with a Michelin star.

The relationship between food and culture is an interesting one, and, sadly, this is a topic that is poorly discussed in Ramen Heads. There isn’t much in the way of narrative structure, and it feels completely segmented by its subject matter in a way that alienates the viewer. The film starts promisingly enough, by describing the role ramen plays in Japanese culture. However, once Tomita is introduced, it becomes apparent the director has topics to discuss and wants them discussed discreetly.

The doc then proceeds apace along a number of subjects: Tomita’s ramen recipe, a short backstory of Tomita’s development into a chef, how the restaurant handles crowds, the reactions of patrons, the closing ritual for the shop, other ramen restauranteurs, the history of ramen, Tomita’s family life, and finally the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tomita’s shop. All of these are handled with barely any overlap, and this episodic feel does the film no favors. When Ramen Heads shows Tomita’s shop closing for the night and moves to a new chef, we assume we are done with Tomita. We continue thinking the film will discuss these chefs with the same level of detail, only to move through multiple people in a matter of minutes, and then returning to Tomita for the rest of the documentary.

It’s not that these segments aren’t interesting; one could easily imagine a film that structures the information in a more compelling fashion. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, for example, to tell the history of ramen in Japan concurrently with Tomita’s personal journey to become a chef? The film ends with the 10th anniversary celebration, but such a grand event might have worked better as a framing device interspersed throughout the film. The bones of a good story are there, but they aren’t put to good use. (Don’t even get me started on the film’s use of Comic Sans. Get it together, Shigeno-san.)

To the doc’s credit, their choice of focusing on Tomita was inspired; he’s an interesting character. His approach to his craft is admirable, especially when he talks about how it’s easy to create a memorable dining experience when you charge $500, but he wants to create a similar experience at an $8 price point. The idea that good food should be available to a wider range of people is wonderfully egalitarian.

Ramen Heads is reminiscent of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Tompopo, two other films that celebrate the meticulousness and dedication required of the Japanese food scene. While Ramen Heads fails to live up to the legacy of either of those films, this delectable doc is not without its merits. If you consider yourself a ramen head, there is a chance the film will pique your interest; otherwise, this fable of noodles and broth may be a bit too dry for your tastes.  That said, the last line rings true: “Ramen… the deeply-satisfying object of desire. Now I want you more than ever.”

Ramen Heads premieres at the Gene Siskel Film Center April 20th, and plays all weekend (including a ramen pop-up on the 21st). 

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About Theo Estes

Theo Estes is a Chicago based film critic who makes periodic appearances on the Alcohollywood podcast. He is also one half of the creative team behind the now defunct YouTube series Twin Cinema.

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