Why are Japanese people hooked on ramen? A new documentary aiming to offer global audiences insight into the passion behind this inexpensive dish was screened at film festivals in seven countries prior to its Japan premiere last month.
“Ramen Heads” was born when producer Arata Oshima watched “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a documentary made by an American director that followed Jiro Ono, who runs a Tokyo sushi restaurant that has earned three Michelin stars.
“I found it frustrating that a non-Japanese director had to produce a film on Japanese food culture,” Oshima, 48, recalled. “However, high-end sushi isn’t something ordinary people can afford to enjoy. I believe ramen is part of authentic Japanese food culture.”
Koki Shigeno, 52, who directed “Ramen Heads,” has made TV programs featuring various chefs, but had never worked on a film for cinema. The director said he wanted the film to be entertaining for overseas audiences in particular.
“Many customers line up for hours just to eat a bowl of ramen, while chefs pursue the best of the best, like seekers looking for the truth. I think these phenomena are very interesting,” Shigeno said. “I was curious to know how people overseas would feel about it.”
“Ramen Heads” focuses on Osamu Tomita, 39, the owner and chef of ramen shop Chukasoba Tomita — dubbed one of the best in Japan — in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture. The production team followed him for more than a year as he visited a number of other eateries.
Shigeno found it surprising that Tomita dines at other ramen shops with his family on his days off.
“It’s not for research. He just likes the noodles,” the director said. “I was amazed.”
The documentary was shown at film festivals in 10 cities last year.
A scene in the documentary showing diners slurping their ramen prompted some members of the audience to cover their ears with their hands, but when similar scenes were shown later, those same hands broke into applause.
“I intentionally put focus on those slurping scenes as I am aware that this way of eating can be offensive to some foreign viewers,” Shigeno said. “However, I didn’t expect audiences would ultimately applaud.”
RAMEN ON SCREEN
“Ramen Heads” is scheduled to screen in U.S. cities in March and April. In addition to “Ramen Heads,” more ramen-themed films will be released this year.
>> “Ramen Teh”: A Japanese, French and Singaporean joint production directed by Eric Khoo, starring Takumi Saito and Seiko Matsuda
>> “Ramen Kuitee” (Lost in Ramen): An adaptation of the manga of the same title, directed by Yuki Kumagai, the film features a high school girl who makes efforts to revive a shop operated by her grandfather.
>> “Tampopo”: Among the earliest films about ramen, this 1985 movie directed by Juzo Itami stars Tsutomu Yamazaki as a man who tries to revive a shop. It was an international hit.
>> “The Ramen Girl”: The 2008 movie, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, is about an American woman in Japan who trains under a ramen shop owner played by Toshiyuki Nishida.
>> “Ramen-zamurai”: The 2012 film, directed by Naoki Segi and starring Dai Watanabe, is set in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, which is said to be the birthplace of tonkotsu porkbone broth ramen.
>> “The God of Ramen”: A documentary from 2013 follows Kazuo Yamagishi, the founder of popular Tokyo ramen shop Taishoken and known as the inventor of tsukemen noodles, which are served with a dipping soup.