When I sat down to watch Ramen Heads, based on the trailer and synopsis, I was anticipating a documentary on a famous ramen chef and his technique and philosophy akin to Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
What I got was…half that. It mostly focuses on Osamu Tomita, an award winning ramen chef based in Matsudo, Chiba. We get to see his kitchen and hear about his philosophy and techniques regarding ramen, but the documentary takes a fairly long break from him to hop around to different ramen shops, gives a quick history lesson, and then brings in two more master-class ramen chefs in the last 20 minutes so they can do a ramen-super-group event.
The film is definitely onto something, but doesn’t stay focused enough to tell a fully compelling story with all the potential that a dish as varied an popular as ramen has. I’m also not willy-nilly comparing this film to Jiro because it’s a Japanese food doc. A ramen version of Jiro is exactly what the director set out to make.
We first join Tomita accepting his third win of a prestigious ramen award. We then move into the tiny kitchen of his restaurant. He’s surprisingly candid about his techniques and ingredients. He straight up shows off his kitchen and what goes into his broth, since it won’t really help you if you don’t have the experience and eye of a master chef.
Seeing how his specific ramen was made was fascinating, and he was adamant that there’s no right way to make ramen. He’s no ramen snob, but is proud of the efforts he puts in to set his recipe apart. Ramen has a huge variety so I feel like the documentary they should have made would focus less on a specific chef and more on how every chef puts themselves into their particular recipe.
One of the most interesting things was that Tomita doesn’t directly teach his apprentices – just lets them watch him work – so they’re forced to deduce his techniques on their own. That would’ve been a great jumpoff point to interview his former apprentices, who’ve all gone on to start their own shops with their own styles. They even appear in the film for a group photo when he wins the award, so it seemed like a missed opportunity.
Instead it breaks away to briefly interview a few other unrelated chefs who specialize in different ramen styles. The oldest and last chef the interview talks shortly about ramen’s history, which segues into a history lesson in the form of a hideous PowerPoint-esque segment that lasted maybe five minutes. It imparted some interesting history, but felt like it should’ve been at the start of the movie, and not looked like a kid threw some ClipArt together 10 minutes before their homework was due. It had jarringly poor production quality, in a film that already felt low budget.
There’s also use of Comic Sans throughout the film for any onscreen text related to food, which…didn’t help the situation.
Not to say documentaries need to have high production values to work, but Ramen Heads had issues with framing, focus, and sound quality that were more than a little noticeable. Often closeups of ramen or its ingredients would spend 3 of the 5 seconds of screen time it had not quite in focus. Almost all street interviews had loud background noises and many were filmed from an odd low angle. If you told me this film was made entirely with a smartphone camera, I would believe you. It gave me the sense of watching a feature-length YouTube vlog.
Anyway, it finally pops back to Tomita at a ramen festival, which serves no purpose in the context of the rest of the film, then we get a glimpse of his bonkers fashion sense and his family. This gives us an idea of what he’s like as a person, but is another segment that feels like it belongs much earlier, when we’re first getting to know him.
The last section is the most confusing, as it suddenly introduces two more master-class ramen chefs (Shota Iida and Yuki Onishi) that team up with Tomita, and with their powers combined, they apparently make some bitchin’ ramen that people travel long distances to taste. I was confused as to why these dudes weren’t a bigger part of the movie. A better documentary would’ve given all 3 equal time. Since they each had their own styles, it would’ve served the purpose of illustrating the diversity of ramen styles. The three of them could’ve been the titular ramen heads. I’m almost annoyed they showed up at all, because it just left me wanting to know more about them and their ramen philosophies.
But then the credits roll.
It left me feeling like they tried to make 2 different documentaries and didn’t finish either. Combined with the amateurish filmmaking (though to be fair, this is director Koki Shigeno’s first feature), I feel like this won’t have the broad appeal that Jiro Dreams of Sushi did. Not to say I wasn’t engaged for at least most of the film. I’m a big food nerd AND a huge fan of ramen, so I learned a few things and had a decent time. I just feel like I learned more after the film was over and I fell down a Wikipedia rabbithole starting from the ramen page.
If you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine or food in general, you’ll find something to enjoy here, but it doesn’t come close to being the ramen version of Jiro.
Ramen Heads opens in NY and LA March 16, 2018.
A full list of screenings can be found here.