Tomita — who decidedly is doing something special — is the subject of “Ramen Heads,” a culinary documentary about a master at the top of his craft. We get to dwell in his closet-size shop with him, as he stirs whole pigs’ heads, seaweed and dried fish into his broth and prepares his handmade noodles, which are cooked to a precision of, seemingly, milliseconds. Cue the luscious slow-mos of pearlescent broth being poured into bowls and its condiments delicately arranged.
“There is nothing clean and pretty about this broth,” said Tomita, and he’s right: It looks like sludge. To a certain kind of fanatic, however — the film’s “ramen heads” — it’s liquid gold.
Of course, there are parallels to be drawn between this film’s subject and Jiro Ono, the master sushi chef profiled in the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Both are obsessed with their craft and accept nothing less than perfection. But where Ono’s restaurant is sparse, elegant and expensive, Tomita’s cheap bowls of comfort food are all about more: making it richer, deeper, creamier, meatier. It’s ego versus id, the difference between fine dining and a messy cheeseburger. Both are great, but which one will satisfy you more?
Although “Ramen Heads” is an interesting glance at the craft of ramen, it ends up feeling lukewarm. The film’s moods are disjointed at times: Triumphant music begins to swell too soon in certain segments, and on-screen titles — in Comic Sans font — appear throughout. When the film segues into short portraits of other ramen chefs who specialize in different styles of the soup, it’s interesting, but incomplete. You’d have to be a bit of a ramen head yourself, with a working knowledge of how tonkotsu differs from
, and shoyu from shio, to appreciate the film: Many of the terms are not explained.
Life in Tomita’s shop is difficult. The chef is strict with his apprentices, correcting their grammar, chewing them out and never actually teaching them the necessary skills: “If they want the knowledge, they’ll have to steal it by tasting and watching,” says a narrator. “He’s not giving anything away.” And Tomita himself has some amusing eccentricities, dressing flamboyantly in Louis Vuitton but forgoing food from the time he wakes up until the shop’s 5:30 closing each day. When the staff does finally have a meal, they all eat from the same bowl.
It doesn’t add up to that much, other than to inspire, perhaps, a certain wanderlust, or a lingering craving for D.C.’s Daikaya. Still, the film has its moments. “Yolk porn” — a fascination with the visual beauty of egg yolks — has become a bit of an Internet food cliche, but one of the most beautiful parts of the film is when Tomita plucks a marinated egg from a tray and pinches it open with his thumbs, revealing a yolk inside that’s the color and consistency of honey. It’s perfect.
“I charge 100 yen [about $1] for this egg,” he says, “so it better be the best damn 100 yen marinated egg in Japan.”
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. In Japanese with subtitles. 93 minutes