Ramen Heads creators team up to stir appetites and minds in latest foodie film
Ramen Heads, currently making its debut tour through the United States, follows Japan’s “Ramen King” Osamu Tomita as he gives viewers a no-holds-barred glimpse into his kitchen where no ingredient or method is spared. Tomita, whose shop in Matsudo, Japan, easily draws lines of patrons willing to wait as early as 4AM, is the affable subject of director Koki Shigeno’s appetite whetting documentary.
At surface level, drawing comparisons between Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Ramen Heads is tempting and easily accessible. However, to do so would also be to disregard Ramen Heads’ earnest attempt at sharing Tomita’s obsession with the world. Whereas Jiro Dreams of Sushi was directed by American David Gelt (also creator of Netflix’s Chef’s Table), the Ramen Heads’ production team is fully Japanese. It is with near solemn, reverential regard that viewers are expected to watch Jiro deftly assemble sushi for his patrons or agonize over the placement of mats on the counter.
Contrast this with Tomita, who as a young 20-something ruffian decided to immerse himself into the ramen world without looking back, often cracks into snaggle-toothed laughter during Ramen Heads. His lax attitude toward disclosing trade secrets combined with the movie’s tongue-in-cheek narration makes for a much more accessible movie that ought to leave viewers with a richer understanding of the vast culture that accompanies Japan’s national dish.
In this exclusive interview, I had the chance to speak to Ramen Head’s director Koki Shigeno and producer Yusuke Kamata about their own experiences with ramen and what else viewers should know about their newest foodie film (the following interview has been edited for clarity and length. Yusuke assisted in providing translations of Koki’s responses).
JL: Where are your hometowns?
YK: Tokyo, Japan.
KS: I am from Funabashi, Chiba prefecture. Next to Matsudo.
JL: Before making this movie, were you already a big fan of ramen?
KS: I am, but I’m also very interested in eating good food in general.
JL: What are your favorite types of ramen?
YK: I really love the tsukemen from Tomita, but let’s just say my favorite is shio.
KS: Tokyo-style shoyu: the most basic and simple shoyu ramen style.
JL: Yusuke, I understand you used to be based out of New York, did you have a favorite ramen shop there?
YK: There is a ramen shop named Minca in the East Village. My friend opened it but it was only open after midnight at the time and it was inside his friend’s Japanese restaurant at the time. It was very New York and we would go there after dinner. Minca has its own shop now but I didn’t go as often as I would go to the midnight ramen.
JL: So how did you two get together and decided to make a movie about ramen?
KS: Yusuke, my friend and fellow producer Arata Oshima, and I all started talking about it after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. We felt sort of frustrated because it was made by a non-Japanese person. We promised we’d make a new film about Japanese food culture and I we decided this time it was going to be about ramen.
YK: Like Koki, we wanted to start this project together after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Something that was related to Japanese food and culture. Jiro Dreams of Sushi was a good movie, but it was made by an American guy so we felt we should do one by ourselves. Koki is a longtime friend of Arata so we asked him to join our project. And when we asked him ‘if we did ramen, what we should focus on?’ Koki immediately answered ‘Tomita - he’s the best.’ And if Koki said Tomita’s the best, we can trust him. He is a big fan of ramen and knows it very well.
JL: A lot of people make comparisons between Ramen Heads and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Was this intentional? How did you decide what kind of tone and style you wanted the movie to have?
YK: We made this movie very intentionally but sushi and ramen are very different. It’s about our culture so it has to be very serious but we also wanted it to be more humorous than Jiro. And thankfully Tomita was a very, very humorous guy.
KS: As a director, I have no intention at all. I actually watched Jiro only once, a few years ago and cannot remember much detail. However, I was conscious about the importance of representing culture; that something normal for Japanese people could be amazing to foreigners. In that way, I was consciously objective.
JL: What was your favorite part about this project?
KS: My favorite part was when we were filming the apprentices' conversations after Tomita went home!
YK: As a producer, especially in post-production, it was very interesting because from the beginning we wanted to make this movie for everybody in the world. We asked ourselves how do we express our Japanese culture to other people in the world? It's challenging but very interesting.
JL: How did you both try to make the movie appealing to an international audience?
KS: Basically, I made this film because I want people outside of Japan to know that ramen is more than just a dish. I want them to understand not just the craftsmanship but also the sometimes crazy, unique rituals behind it.
YK: It has such a long history, it comes from China but it has become one of the most Japanese foods. We also tried to tell the world that ramen is not about tonkotsu.
JL: And, what was your biggest challenge in filming Ramen Heads?
KS: To gain the trust of Tomita and his staff. It would have been impossible without a trusting relationship to get into one of the kitchen of one of the most popular shops in Japan. It was also tough for me to patiently film long shots of ramen being cooked. It is common sense for all Japanese people - and also in my blood - that you must eat a bowl of ramen while it is hot and fresh. I almost could not bear it, being in front of Tokyo’s best ramen like that!
JL: What do you hope that viewers take away from watching Ramen Heads?
YK: It's always up to the audience but me and Koki always said ‘We would be very happy if the audience got hungry after watching this movie and stopped by their local ramen shop on the way home.’ That was kind of our goal. Some people might enjoy learning about Tomita and another person might love the history part, but it's up to the audience.I just really hope people enjoy the culture of ramen.
KS: I would be grateful if it made you feel like eating a bowl of ramen after watching. That is it!