By Katsuo Kokaji / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterWhy 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 late 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 [as featured in the film] 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, and also 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 has been shown at film festivals in 10 cities in the Netherlands, the United States, Norway and four other countries. Shigeno and Tomita attended two of the events: the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto and the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain.
At the Canadian event, the film was shown at a theater with 300 seats, and all four screenings sold out.
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.”
In Spain, the film drew so many viewers that festival organizers added extra screenings, and Tomita created a set meal that included ramen and some other dishes using local ingredients.
“I didn’t see any ramen shops in San Sebastian, so I thought it was the first time locals were eating the noodles,” the chef said. “I was glad to find delicious dishes can be recognized as tasty no matter where you are.
“I hope viewers understand what’s behind the delicious ramen we serve: namely, our passion for preparation, choosing ingredients and hospitality toward diners,” he said.
“Ramen Heads” is scheduled to screen in more than 10 U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, from March to April. “We’ll kick off in the United States, and hope to show it in Europe, too,” Oshima said.
In addition to “Ramen Heads,” more ramen-themed films will be released this year.
One is tentatively titled “Ramen Teh,” a Japanese, French and Singaporean joint production directed by Eric Khoo, with Takumi Saito and Seiko Matsuda among the cast.
“Ramen Kuitee” (Lost in Ramen) is an adaptation of the manga with 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.
Among the earliest films about ramen, “Tampopo” (1985) is probably the most notable. Directed by Juzo Itami, it stars Tsutomu Yamazaki as a man who tries to revive a shop. It became a hit overseas as well.
“The Ramen Girl” (2008), 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” (2012), directed by Naoki Segi and starring Dai Watanabe, is set in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, which is said to be the birthplace of tonkotsu pork-bone broth ramen.