A typical ramen shop in Japan has no more than ten, maybe fifteen seats. The buildings are often showing their age, and inside, along with steamed, heavy air, one will occasionally find an oily sheen across the floor. Yet, it seems that this matters little for customers who regularly keep the stores full, hinting that for them, there’s something more important than a perfect interior. The best ramen shops in Japan focus on the food, not a well-decorated venue. Likewise, ramen chefs, often forgoing the traditional niceties of the Japanese food server/customer relationship, keep focused on the noodles, their special broth, and all the accessories that make their recipes special.
In the following four ramen-focused films, we present two documentaries that explore the dish’s traditions and modern history, and two works of fiction that illustrate both the artisanal nature of this food in Japanese culture and the universal appeal to a world of hungry customers. The four movies illustrate the passion with which ramen is cooked and teach us that the most important spice to a delicious dish is the love and dedication it is made with.
1.The God of Ramen, ラーメンより大切なもの
Our first entry is a perfect example of how good things take a very long time to achieve. Kazuo Yamagishi, the titular God of Ramen, spent more than 50 years perfecting his ramen recipe, and there was a time when customers had to wait two hours for a bowl of his delicious noodle soup. This documentary, which took 10 years to shoot, presents a beautiful portrait of the originator of “tsukemen” ramen, a man wholly devoted to not only perfecting his own recipe, but also teaching hundreds of disciples to do the same — and it all started at a single shop in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ikebukuro neighborhood. More than the simple profile of an accomplished chef, this documentary is also a heartwarming and occasionally tragic exploration of a fully lived life and the joy of doing something you love as well as you possibly can. For Yamagishi, creating what has essentially become a national dish and advancing the ramen industry was a noble pursuit, and the same can be said for Takashi Innami’s documentary — both were well worth the wait!
Directed by: Takashi Innami Starring: Kazuo Yamagishi
2.Ramen Heads, ラーメンヘッズ
Our second entry, another documentary, brings us right up to speed with the current state of the ramen world by diving into the noodle-focused life of award-winning chef Osamu Tomita. As Japan’s current reigning king of ramen, Tomita is surprisingly transparent about his recipes and development process. To paraphrase and entertaining line from the film, he bluntly states that “...people claim to protect their secret recipes, but the truth is that there’s nothing to reveal, so I am open about my process.” As people, Ramen Heads are devotees who travel the nation to find the best bowl. Tomita himself is admittedly one, and his quest to constantly improve his ramen is actually a rather charming and admirable obsession. In addition to Tomita openly sharing his methods, the film also profiles several other ramen chefs and their varying outlooks on advancing the ramen industry vs. maintaining the status quo. Viewers are also given a brief but informative history of the food, from its Chinese roots to its massive, worldwide growth in popularity over the past 100 years. Ramen Heads’ visuals and the passion of its stars will touch your stomachs and hearts alike.
Directed by: Koki Shigeno Starring: Osamu Tomita, Shota Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi
3.The Ramen Girl, ラーメンガール
The protagonist, Abby, is a young American girl who’s relocated to Japan to be with her boyfriend. When the couple quite suddenly breaks up and Abby finds herself alone in Tokyo, a city she knows nothing of, she stumbles into a ramen shop where the proprietor and his wife, seeing her state of distress and disarray, grudgingly offer her a bowl of ramen. Though heartbroken from the breakup, Abby falls in love with ramen and expresses her wish to become an apprentice at the shop. Maezumi, the shop’s chef and owner, is initially annoyed with Abby and refuses her pleas to teach her the art of ramen making. Eventually, he realizes that her interest is more than a temporary obsession and gives in to Abby’s persistence. She begins working at the shop, develops her own style of ramen, and gradually connects with a host of regulars and other characters, including a love interest. Abby eventually has to return to the U.S., but her experience in Tokyo turns out to be life-changing, and by bringing ramen culture home with her, she gains a new direction in life. Featuring well known foreign cast members and a foreign director, The Ramen Girl is definitely a testament to this food culture’s international reach and appeal. The movie also teaches us the essence of ramen making: that a single bowl takes a long time and devotion.
Directed by: Robert Allan Ackerman Starring: Brittany Murphy, Toshiyuki Nishida
4. Ramen Samurai, ラーメン侍
The last film on our list takes us to one of the main hubs of ramen culture, the southwestern city of Kurume, directly adjacent to the ramen mecca of Fukuoka City. Ramen Samurai follows the journey of a young Japanese man, Hikari, whose father, a dedicated ramen chef and community fixture, has recently passed away. Saddened by the loss yet inspired to maintain the family legacy, Hikari leaves his job at a design firm and dedicates himself to recreating his father’s ramen recipe. When he fails, Hikari looks back to his childhood experiences, consults with elders on ramen tradition, and eventually finds his own unique path and recipe. In addition to being a heartwarming story of perseverance and achievement, Ramen Samurai also introduces viewers to a unique feature of the Fukuoka region’s ramen culture: the traditional mobile ramen shop, or yatai. These famously casual and fun pop-up shops usually serve tonkotsu (pork bones-based) style ramen and are a charming fixture of the region’s nightlife.
Directed by: Naoki Segi Starring: Dai Watanabe, Sayaka Yamaguchi
Be it a shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salty), miso, or even a Hokkaido-style curry soup base, ramen is Japan’s soul food: a quick dish with a long history, a temporary encounter, and a satisfaction to our stomachs and minds. Film is of course a different experience, and while these four will definitely warm your heart and teach you much about the craft behind making a bowl of noodles, they will leave your stomachs empty — but that’s okay, because this is just another chance to go out and find a great bowl of ramen on your next trip to Japan.