A New Documentary Wants You to See Ramen as Art
'Ramen Heads', which comes out in select American theaters on Friday, tells the story of Osamu Tomita, who is considered the 'King of Ramen.'
Photo courtesy Big Time PR.
Koki Shigeno didn’t make Ramen Heads for Japanese audiences. He figured most of them would understand the basic point of his documentary: that ramen transcends convenience food; that ramen is a means of creative expression.
Shigeno primarily had Americans and Europeans in mind when filming the documentary, he explained to me one day in March. “I made this movie because I want people outside Japan to know more about ramen,” Shigeno told me. “I feel there is a little bit of misunderstanding about ramen.”
He worried those audiences had been conditioned to see ramen as little more than a quick, affordable lunch, a false impression that distorts how diligently so many chefs approach making ramen within Japan.
Ramen Heads, which comes out in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, attempts to remedy this great cultural misunderstanding that’s plagued ramen. It’s a shame, Shigeno feels, that more Americans aren’t privy to the intricacies of making ramen, a practice so many chefs have dedicated their lives to.
Osamu Tomita, the subject of Shigeno’s film, is one such man. Tomita began his own ramen shop, Tomita, in Matsudo, Chiba, roughly a decade ago. The film explains that it’s now hailed as the country’s best—a mecca of ramen that draws the longest lines of any ramen shop in Japan, so much that it's the frequent recipient of critical hosannas and awards. If Japan has grown into a nation of ramen heads, Tomita is one of that nation's most highly revered idols.
The film, shot between July 2015 and September 2016, follows 15 months in Tomita's life, showing the particular meticulousness with which he makes ramen. Shigeno ran into minor difficulties in working with his subject, he told me, for Tomita wasn’t necessarily used to being filmed on the job. The nature of his profession is somewhat private.
“The Japanese are relatively shy, especially a craftsman like a ramen chef,” Shigeno explained to me. “Japanese craftsmen are quiet and it is very difficult to understand what they are really feeling.”
But he sought to convey Tomita’s passion above all else, for the chef's dedication to ramen is no ordinary one. Shigeno fills this compact, 90-minute documentary with lavish, languorous shots of food: frames of pulverized mackerel and sludgy mud puddles of dashi broth that Tomita ladles carefully into bowls. To Tomita, the film explains, there is no such thing as a throwaway or minor ingredient. Even a poor bamboo shoot can separate a mediocre bowl from an exquisite one.
Shigeno takes great care to place Tomita within the larger context of ramen's dizzying evolution since its inception within the country in 1910. Tomita belongs to a recent guard of ramen pioneers who’ve expanded the possibilities of this dish so enormously that, today, the very word "ramen" suggests "riotous multitudes of styles and flavors" within Japan.
Tomita, now a middle-aged married father, had grown up a rough-and-tumble kid in Ibaraki. He was good at neither school nor sports, so he dabbled in construction work after finishing high school. But he found the work unfulfilling, and, in a spell of self-pity, trekked to Taishoken Ramen House, run by legendary ramen chef Kazuo Yamagishi.
The visit was something of a gastronomic epiphany for Tomita, the film asserts; he didn’t realize ramen could taste like that. So Tomita apprenticed with Yamagishi, himself a God of ramen-making, and decided to open Tomita. It's a business venture that has turned him into a celebrity, with a number of ramen chefs who practically worship him.
One of those devotees is Keizo Shimamoto, who now runs Ramen Shack in Brooklyn (and may be especially well-known for creating the ramen burger). “Tomita-san’s dedication and work ethic to consistently serve a bowl that is ranked at the top every single year is not only impressive, but admirable,” Shimamoto wrote me over email. “I vividly remember my first time trying it eight years ago, waiting over an hour in line, and having it exceed all my expectations.”
Shimamoto hopes that Ramen Heads exposes the consistent hard work, meticulous preparation, and the long devotion of hours that makes ramen a serious discipline. “Tomita-san’s passion clearly transfers over to his ramen,” Shimamoto explained. “I’ve always tried to model that in my own work.”
For Tomita himself, seeing his story put to film was surreal. The hardest part of being filmed for Ramen Heads for Tomita was, well, being filmed at all, he explained to me. He hadn’t been used to cameras following his every move in the kitchen.
“There was [a] time when I was trying to make myself look good,” he told me. “But I found myself soon.”
The experience of being followed around with a camera for 15 months changed the way he approaches his work. “I have become more conscious about how people see my behavior,” Tomita told me. “I think even more professionally about my craftsmanship.”
He’s been pouring blood and sweat into his ramen for years. Now, the world will see it.
Ramen Heads premieres in New York and Los Angeles on March 16, with a nationwide rollout to follow.