Ramen is just noodles and broth, right? Well, no, it’s actually much more, as we learn in the entertaining Japanese documentary “Ramen Heads.” The dish has a fanatical following in Japan, where the movie’s central figure, chef Osamu Tomita, is celebrated as the king of ramen.
He’s a tireless perfectionist who cooks up an incredibly rich — and unexpectedly thick — broth of many high-quality ingredients, which may include pig’s heads and several kinds of dried fish, boiling the concoction sometimes for days. The mixture of flours used in his handmade noodles varies by season, and the goal is “slurpability” — making noise while eating ramen is de rigueur.
The result, as the film shows, is that customers line up at the crack of dawn to eat at Tomita’s 10-seat restaurant, even though service doesn’t begin until 11 a.m. (The shop has recently established a ticketing system that has somewhat reduced the lines.) The customers aren’t interested in chitchat. They are bent over their bowls, chopsticks hard at work, entirely focused on consuming the delicious contents.
Tomita is an intriguing character, an exacting boss who sends his workers to stand outside the restaurant for a time if he judges that they’re falling short of his standards. Instead of relaxing on his day off, he decks himself in fancy duds — a Louis Vuitton jacket and Hermes pendant — and visits other ramen shops, including those of chefs he’s trained.
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Filmmaker Koki Shigeno offers a few hints that Tomita’s single-mindedness does not make him the world’s easiest person to get along with. We see him scolding his young son at mealtime. The boy says he wants to be a ramen chef, but glumly notes that he has an insufficiently refined palate. Where could he have gotten that idea?
Overall, though, the tone is laudatory. If anything, Shigeno sometimes waxes overly enthusiastic about his subject — the idea seems to be that we should enjoy the movie as much as the on-screen eaters relish Tomita’s exquisite brews.
An animated historical segment says that ramen began as inexpensive fuel for hardworking people in Japan’s postwar years. The film later mentions in passing that there is now a ramen shop (not Tomita’s, by the way) that has a Michelin star. Ramen has most definitely arrived, and “Ramen Heads” is a chance to do some vicarious slurping.
“Ramen Heads,” a documentary directed by Koki Shigeno. 93 minutes. Not rated. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Opens March 30 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. No star rating was provided with this review.