Film Review: Ramen Heads

The simplest dish—oh so familiar in your college days—is here entrancingly elevated to the most desired culinary art, not to mention obsession.
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It is strongly recommended that you not see Ramen Heads on an empty stomach. More than any other opulently appetizing food epic—including Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, etc.—Koki Shigeno’s idolatrous, entrancing portrait of chef Osamu Tomita, three-time winner of Japan’s Best Ramen, will make you excruciatingly ravenous. Perhaps it’s because this simple yet soul-satisfying noodle dish is one we all have had—an easy, inexpensive meal invented in the miserable post World War II years for a starving Japanese populace—not some fantastical, multi-starred gourmet concoction way out of the financial reach of most of us poor, hungry schleppers.

Tomita’s secret? Well, if the Italians have that term to describe their most luscious cuisine, “con amore” (i.e., “made with love”), then Tomita’s output could be deemed “made with obsessive, fanatical love.” Every single ingredient is painstakingly harvested, starting with the essential broth, derived from a bewildering assortment of sources—chicken bones, dried fish, even a whole pig’s head—then simmered for three days and finally combined with three other perfectly assembled broths—the end result never tasting exactly the same twice. And we haven’t even gotten to the noodles—deemed by the master the most essential ingredient—which are of course beyond bespoke.

Ramen truly is the handsome, autocratic and charmingly besotted Tomita’s entire life. He runs his tiny, ten-seat self-named restaurant in the town of Matsudo with an iron fist, sending worshipful if harried apprentices outside if they prove to be incompetent at any moment, making them scrub the place down to a cleanliness that would have made Joan Crawford smile, whatever her thoughts on the noisy “slurpability” that he strives for with every bowl. He caters to the endless lines of foodie fanatics with an automated ticketing service specifically designed to make the inevitable wait for a seat less harrowing. And even on his days off, his preferred meal is the ramen made by rival restaurants. He’s a big charismatic personality as well, blinged out in costly designer wear, with a wife who wishes he were maybe a tad more relaxed about those noodles, and three kids, the eldest of whom wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps but confesses to having a “lousy tongue” that didn’t really notice a certain cut of meat was too salty.

Shigeno also throws in a quick and quite fascinating history of ramen itself, as well as nods to other top ramen guys like Yuki Onishi, the first to win a Michelin star. But it’s the tantalizing closeups of Tomita’s trademark, unusually thick and almost mudlike broth, eddying in its vats or being poured like so much brown velvet, that will excruciatingly stick in your mind, as well as the rapt, utterly blissed-out expressions of his wordless patrons prayerfully communing with their bowls.

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