If Ramen Heads attempted to argue a thesis that went deeper than “Ramen tastes yummy,” it would probably be able to also find a consistent audience.
Ramen Heads is a visually-impressive food documentary that takes the viewer on a curated eating tour of Japan. While it never decides on the appropriate tone or its preferred audience, it remains engaging and informative throughout its runtime. Its brevity helps to balance out its unevenness and the net result is a craving for the iconic noodle soup dish that the film concentrates on: ramen, in all of its myriad variations.
As the film defines it in the opening scenes, a “ramen head” is a person obsessed with eating ramen, the broth-centric pork and noodle soup beloved in Japan. But ramen heads as such are not the subject of Ramen Heads; instead, the film focuses on ramen chefs. Of course, the ramen chefs portrayed here are singularly engrossed by ramen and are, therefore, certainly ramen heads. All of this to say that the documentary is less about fandom or obsession than it is about craft. It concentrates on the process of making the dish.
In particular, Ramen Heads focuses on Osamu Tomita, the acclaimed current “king” of ramen in Japan. His specific version of the dish is the consecutive national award winner. The film explains his process, shows his prep shop and his restaurant, examines his life off-the-clock and gives a thorough look at a man whose infatuation with ramen dominates and defines his life. Tomita is hyper-intense and an absolute perfectionist. He changes his noodle and broth recipes subtly with the seasons, intimidates—some would say bullies—his apprentices and even spends his one day off from work touring other ramen shops. Ramen Heads shows every single element in his recipe. The broth is the result of multiple days of simmering pork and chicken bones, dried sardines, onions and potatoes in massive vats. The noodles are a delicately-balanced blend of three different Japanese wheat flours and Tomita even varies the length of the noodle for different occasions.
Ramen Heads occasionally diverges from Tomita to showcase other ramen chefs, each of whom has his or her (there is one woman chef shown) own interpretation of the dish. Ramen is clearly very diverse. It can have a heavy broth or one so light it is basically salt water; the base can be pork or seafood or chicken and the noodles can be long or short, thick or thin and immersed in the broth or served on the side. Ramen Heads also explores the history of the dish, from a post-War survival mechanism—it was cheap and easy nutrition for a nuclear-bombed, US-occupied Japanese society—to a posh foodie extravaganza that is popular enough to be the subject of documentaries.
Ramen Heads is not a deep or important film. It has no ambitions to be anything more than a low-stakes look at a food dish. Because of this, the film seems frivolous. What’s the point of it all? Deepening this problem, Ramen Heads lacks a sense of audience. Is it for Japanophiles and ramen heads? Or is it for people who know nothing about ramen at all? Is it for kids or adults? It wavers constantly in tone, content level and its sense of who the viewer is supposed to be. It shifts from self-serious to sarcastic, with multiple scenes featuring an airy score that are especially hard to read—are they straightforwardly serious or so hyperbolic they are meant to be funny?
If Ramen Heads were more purposeful or attempted to argue a thesis that went deeper than “Ramen tastes yummy,” it would probably be able to also find the right tenor and a consistent audience. As it stands, though, Ramen Heads is inconsistently fun, but only ever in a hollow and superficial sort of way. And it does raise a mighty craving for some ramen