JFF 2018 Review: Ramen Heads

Ramen is one of the most popular Japanese dishes that needs no introduction. It was a comfort food not only loved by the Japanese but also taken the world by storm, even here in Malaysia. The reason is simple: a bowl of piping-hot ramen is both comforting and appetising where you can have them any time of the day. The ingredients are normally consisting of wheat noodles in a flavourful broth with various toppings like boiled eggs, chashu (pork belly) and nori (Japanese seaweed).

In Ramen Heads, Koki Shigeno made his directorial debut in a documentary that revolves mostly on Osamu Tomita, a well-known Japanese ramen chef who operates his own namesake noodles shop in Matsudo. We get to see how he prepare big pots of broth in the kitchen every single day. For Tomita, preparing a seemingly simple bowl of ramen requires a lot of dedication and patience. Every ingredient is meticulously prepared to achieve the right amount of taste and flavour. And that also includes favouring different types of flour to prepare every strand of noodle by hands, ensuring his customers would get a satisfying mouthfeel upon slurping the noodles from the bowl.

Interestingly enough, regular customers and newcomers come from different parts of Japan are willing to wake up as early as 4.30 am in the morning and queue for hours just to enjoy a bowl of ramen at Tomita’s restaurant. And get this: Tomita’s tiny 10-seater ramen restaurant only officially serving the customers at 11 am. However, his team of apprentices already open the doors at 7.00 am where queuing customers able to purchase a meal beforehand using an innovative prepaid system. According to Tomita, such a system can reduce the otherwise traditional long queue.

Quality isn’t the only thing that matters to Tomita. He also ensures that even the restaurant closes at 5.00 pm, his apprentices will have to work after hours to clean the kitchen, which typically ends at 11.00 pm. After all, Tomita is a firm believer that a good hygiene is just as important as serving a good bowl of ramen.

We also learn that during Tomita’s off-day period, he will visit different establishments to enjoy various types of ramens.

Although Shigeno focuses mainly on Tomita in person as well as his daily operation in the restaurant, he doesn’t forget to include other ramen chefs in Japan and their respective specialty on preparing different types of ramens like tonkotsu (roast pork) and shoyu (soy). Still, I have this nagging feeling about the way Shigeno approached his documentary in a somewhat bias manner. It seems to me that he’s more interested in exploring Osamu Tomita while others are mostly fillers. Besides, what’s the point of calling this documentary as Ramen Heads?

Another gripe about this documentary is its surface-level storytelling. I was expecting to learn more about the cultural and social impact of ramen that made the dish so popular among the Japanese in the first place. Sure, we get to see a brief history of ramen but Shigeno chose the easier path to execute them in a generic textbook-like fashion.

Still, Ramen Heads remains watchable enough, particularly if you are a die-hard fan of ramen. Osamu Tomita turns out to be an interesting and even a charismatic real-life ramen chef, while Shigeno ensures you get to see a few slow-motion montages and close-up shots of ramen preparation, all passionately framed to make you feel hungry. Just remember not to watch this at the cinema with an empty stomach.

Catch Ramen Heads and the rest of the Japanese movies featured in this year’s Japanese Film Festival (JFF) at selected GSC cinemas from 6th to 12th September in Kuala Lumpur (GSC Pavilion KL, Mid Valley, 1Utama and Nu Sentral), 13th to 16th September at Penang’s GSC Gurney Plaza, 20th to 23rd September at Johor Bahru’s GSC Paradigm JB Mall, 4th to 7th October at Kuching’s GSC CityONE Megamall and Kota Kinabalu’s GSC Suria Sabah.

Apart from Ramen Heads, the featured Japanese movie line-ups include 3ft Ball & Souls, Born Bone Born, Chihayafuru trilogy, Exhalation, Fly Me to Minami, Heart of Taiko, Her Sketchbook, Kingyo, Memoirs of A Murderer, Mixed Doubles, New World, Perfect World, The 8-Year Engagement, The Gift of Memory, Tremble All You Want, We Make Antiques! and Yakiniku Dragon. For more info regarding the JFF 2018, click here.

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