In title and premise alone, The God of Ramen might seem to be yet another food documentary, as much about vibrant preparation and mouth-watering images as it is actual storytelling, yet Takashi Innami’s film is so far removed from those films that it seems almost slight to call it a ‘food documentary’. In fact, it’s much more of an emotional character study, focusing on famed ramen chef Kazuo Yamagishi over an 11-year period in which the popularity of his restaurant Taishoken ebbs and flows alongside his ailing health problems. It’s as much about ramen as it is death, Yamagishi dealing with his own mortality and legacy.
He’s an ageing man, 67 at the beginning of the film, and we are told that wife died 15 years earlier. He lives for the production of ramen, a religious fervour instilled in him to focus on only the preparation of food, rather than living life to the fullest. Early on he says he should be happy, and Innami points out in narration how often it appears he is not; for the most part we see him stuck in a sustained prism of grief, bottling up his pain. Innami realises early on that there is a painting of a group of cats in the kitchen that is covered in grease, Yamagishi’s assistant’s claim they haven’t been given permission to clean it, and whilst Innami perhaps uses the painting in too heavy-handed a fashion, it clearly represents the inability of Yamagishi to move on from his wife’s death. He sleeps in the shop, wakes at 4am, begins work and hardly ever leaves the confines of the building. This narrative runs alongside an exploration of what makes ‘great’ ramen, with this gaping juxtaposition making for an interesting piece of storytelling.
Yamagishi says early on that his aim is to make cheap and tasty ramen, with no real monetary ambition or pretension on display. Whilst his rotating cast of apprentices go off and make successful knock-off restaurants under the Taishoken name (Yamagishi takes no franchise fees), he is able to draw large crowds of people to his ramshackle place of work. We learn that much of this is a placebo effect, whilst Yamagishi’s ramen is undoubtedly good, his persona seems to be what actually draws people to the restaurant. When he is serving ramen and working, he appears cheerful and interacts with his customers. There’s a familiarity with his regulars as well, some of whom have been eating there for around 40 years. When we find out that he organises his middle school reunion every year, this sense of joy and connection to others is beautifully on display. The handheld camera and the cheap, early digital aesthetic of the film manages to match this lack of pretension.1
An issue Innami has is that, whilst he manages to effectively capitalise on the strong emotional pull of Yamagishi’s grief, he attempts to shoehorn in a subplot about Yamagishi’s connection to his hometown in the mountains. Whilst this allows for a great and surprising moment – Yamagishi pulls out a harmonica and plays a song of his hometown, much to the surprise of his apprentices – it doesn’t feel fully developed at all, and the decision to bookend the film with a look at his hometown feels undeveloped. In addition to this, the usage of what feels like a music library score manages to cheapen many scenes in the film, lazily using tinny sound to evoke mood rather than relying on the narrative.
Despite feeling slightly too long in telling what amounts to a strongly thematic biographical tale, The God of Ramen is an unexpectedly emotional story that eschews almost all of the hallmarks of the typical ‘food documentary’. The title in English is The God of Ramen, which managed to hint that perhaps he is as much an influential figure in the ramen world as he is devoted to the creation of ramen in a religious manner, however the direct translation of the Japanese title is “More Important Things Than Ramen”, a much more direct summation of the film’s intention – about devotion in life, to passions, dreams and relationships.