Director: Robert Allan Ackerman
Food Type: Ramen (if you couldn’t guess)
Film Rating: 6/10
Foodie rating: 8/10
The subgenre of ramen based foodie films came to its apotheosis with the noodle nirvana of Tampopo (1985). Here the Japanese pasta sub-subgenre gets an American twist with The Ramen Girl, a learn-to-cook Japanese foodie film set in Japan and, surprisingly for a Hollywood film, it has a significant amount of (helpfully subtitled) dialogue in Japanese. It is also a romantic comedy, albeit one centred on food and culture; so more a ramen-tic comedy.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) has travelled to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Ethan (Gabriel Mann). But it seems that he couldn’t care less, taking a job in China at the first opportunity, he leaves her alone in his half empty apartment. Weeping with sadness at her situation she enters the eatery across the road, which is right in the middle of closing for the night, bawling her eyes out. Bemused by the distraught foreign girl in their midst, the owner and his wife give her some of the remaining ramen to see if it will assuage her misery and persuade her to leave so that they can go to bed. Abby devours the ramen and quaffs the broth and, in doing so, becomes intoxicated by the ramen experience. She comes up with an obsessive idea – to learn to cook ramen. So she seeks lessons from chef and owner Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida). But this is not a simple student and mentor situation as Maezumi is a tough employer who gets her to engage in tasks such as cleaning the bathroom rather than cooking. It is not aided by the fact that even though the establishment’s sign marks it as a soba restaurant (そば蕎麦 – buckwheat noodles) its unhappy proprietor is regularly anything but sober. But Abby pursues her new career by persevering. She does manage to develop a social life and find new friends when she visits a club in Roppongi where she re-meets a bunch of western acquaintances, including Gretchan (Tammy Blanchard) and they get talking to Japanese salaryman Toshi Iwamoto (Soji Arai), who seems to be a bit more coherent than his associates. Abby and Toshi start dating and so her relationship blossoms alongside her ramen tuition. But then her progress comes to a frightening prospect when she learns that, “The master’s coming in two months.” This renowned ramen critic’s evaluation could result in laudation or humiliation. Maezumi is surprisingly optimistic about Abby’s chances and establishes a wager with a rival ramen proprietor which could lead to major consequences for both Abby and his well-established business. He even takes Abby to visit his mother who reveals her own profound ramen philosophies. What holds for Abby, and indeed Maezumi, in the future?
The Ramen Girl is a mixed bowl of ramen and broth that is distinct in its exploration of cross-cultural misunderstandings and the humour or challenges that result. The main characters have rounded back stories but ultimately the food is the driver to the events in this film. Learning ramen from a sensei seems to be a similar process to learning kung-fu from a sifu. There are difficult, strenuous, apparently mundane tasks that go on for an age before actual understanding the required skills to implement the technique that the master is teaching. These are important to Abby’s understanding even as they are apparently futile.
The competitive nature of developing cookery skills for a discerning master is a theme in many cooking films such as Jadoo-Kings of Curry, King of Cooking, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Here, the emphasis lies with the broth, its creation and its flavour, not to mention the side effects on the palette and spiritual/emotional response of consuming the concoction, is central to this film’s (very discrete) philosophical assertions. Early on we see how Maezumi’s creations can, in the right circumstances, create impulsive mirth and happiness in his clients as Abby declares, “I wanna make people happy the way you do.”
The food in the film is 95% ramen based but there is a notable exception where cross-cultural cuisine is the focus of one delightful scene. It’s Christmas and Abby, wearing an elf hat and having had her attempts to decorate the restaurant savagely mocked by Maezumi, has returned to her flat where Gretchan has moved in. The pair celebrate with a drink and a KFC Bargain Bucket, a familiar food take away for an American but KFC is also the Christmas meal that one eats in Japan. The romance of the film is definitely ramen-based, however, when Toshi takes Abby on a date to visit the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, foodie heaven, which also offers a historic depiction of ramen throughout the years as well as the flavours of broth throughout the regions of Japan – with the inevitable consequences of a bloated but happy stomach.
The Ramen Girl is a mixed concoction of East meets West which, whilst not departing from genre expectations, at least blends them together in a different way that is sweet and fun. Not haute cuisine but satisfactory for when you feel peckish.
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