A narrator tells us at the outset of Koki Shigeno's Ramen Heads that ramen, unlike upscale, elegant sushi, is seen as a "casual, cheap, immediate" comfort food. That may be the experience for consumers, sitting in cramped, unadorned dining rooms -- often by themselves -- slurping their noodles on their way to somewhere else. But as demonstrated by this exquisite documentary, the preparation of Japan's national dish is an arduous affair, with the most celebrated chefs -- variously referred to here as "ramen gods" and "ramen demons" -- toiling fanatically to retain the color, richness and viscosity of their dishes.
Ramen, we are told, came to prominence in post-WWII Japan, when the country was resurging and needed a quick, filling form of sustenance to keep workers productive. No one could have foretold the global cuisine it would become. Today, there's a wildly varied array of ramen broth ingredients, covered here in sumptuous detail -- pig heads, chicken feet, mackerel powder, miso paste concoctions, red snapper bones with blood and offal removed. No two chefs agree on a "standard" way to make ramen, save for designating precise boiling and cooling times for the noodles.
Osamu Tomita gets the most screen time in Ramen Heads and is shown to be a loving, if strict, restaurateur. He's hardest on himself, not breaking for meals or even the bathroom until closing time. The funniest, most poignant scene, reveals how Tomita's exactitude influences his young son, who wants to follow in dad's footsteps but lacks discerning taste buds. He laments: "I'll have to get this stupid tongue of mine into shape first!"