Picture a perfect bowl of ramen: the steaming broth and noodles and toppings, the slurping sound you relish making as you eat it, the warmth in your belly after a bowl. Koki Shigeno’s debut documentary, Ramen Heads, will tantalize you with gorgeous shots of ramen as it’s being made by the best chefs in Japan, the nation that gave us this delicious food, with a look at its history and the kind of work that goes into making little shops nationally and internationally acclaimed.
The movie starts with, and focuses on, Osama Tomita, Japan’s “King of Ramen” who is earning the prestigious Tokyo Ramen of the Year award for the third year in a row. We see how much obsessive work he puts into perfecting the broth (a combination of 3 different broths started at 3 different times comprised of a veritable cauldron of ingredients chock full of pork bones and a straight-up pig’s head) and noodles (a mix of 4 specific flours that changes seasonally). The love and care he has for his ramen and his customers is clear: the shop is closed if he isn’t able to personally make the broth and flour mixture for the noodles, he makes his noodles extra long and wide and smooth for maximum slurpability, and if one of his apprentices loses focus for a moment he sends him outside. He even designed the seating ticketing system for customers, which reduced the length of the line for Tomita to just a quarter of what it was a year prior. Even on his days off, he is visiting other ramen shops. Towards the end of the film, he is planning a 10th anniversary celebration for his ramen shop with ramen heavyweights Shota Iida, whose noodles are agreed to be the best, and Yuki Onishi, the first ramen chef to earn a Michelin star. Watching these three men at the top of the culinary game working together with premium ingredients to make a special bowl of ramen for customers gave me goosebumps, because they really cared about the ramen and the taste above all else. I envied the 200 customers who were able to enjoy the final product.
In the middle of Tomita’s story was an animation about the history of ramen, a dish brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants and embraced as a post-war comfort. We learn about where shio and shoyu and tonkotsu and miso ramen come from, and about several other renowned bowls of ramen to add to your food bucket list: the clean shio made with just red snapper, one of almost a thousand of bowls of shoyu served daily at the Tsukiji fish market, the homey miso ramen served at a shop owned by a woman (a rarity in the ramen world), and the ramen made in a historic shop the same way it was made there 50 years ago.
While the middle section of the film was strange as far as the momentum of the story, and the scoring and typographical choices at times puzzled me, I really loved learning about the history of ramen and its cultural significance, as well as about other famous ramen shops and what made them famous. Watching these chefs lovingly prepare hundreds of bowls of ramen a day made me crave a bowl myself while still feeling warmed through inside, knowing that there are so many chefs putting so much care into a food they truly love and know their customers truly love as well. In this post-Jiro Dreams of Sushi era, I’m glad that the beautiful food documentary momentum hasn’t slowed down. Watch Ramen Heads if you love food, ramen, or watching masters at their craft.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5