Some things translate across cultures. Ramen, the hardy Japanese noodle soup, is one of them. And some things do not translate, like Koki Shigeno’s “Ramen Heads,” an obsequious mash note masquerading as a documentary.
The film is arriving on these shores in the wake of such successful foodie nonfictions as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a 2012 art-house hit about an 85-year-old master of raw fish. Like that film, “Ramen Heads” reaches for the lyrical with slow-motion shots of roiling broth and soaring classical music on the soundtrack. Unlike the earlier movie, it goes so far overboard in ladling out praise that viewers might wonder if they’re being sold a bill of goods.
“Ramen: Whispered in anticipation or delight, it’s enough to stir the emotions” is how the film’s voice-over narration begins. It gets more effusive from there.
One issue is that this starry-eyed fan’s note is dedicated to a fundamentally humble dish, one lacking the gourmet aspirations of sushi or tempura. As we find out during a belated historical segment, ramen has always been a working-man’s food, and it found purchase in the country’s affections during the post-World War II era, when it served as a simple, filling meal for a defeated and impoverished Japan.
“Ramen Heads” makes distinctions among the various styles of the dish that have cropped up since then, and we hear about such variations as Tonkatsu, shio, tsukemen, and niboshi ramen; it’s the kind of movie that would best come with a tasting menu. The glimpses we get of celebrated ramen chefs, legends of noodledom, are gratifying, especially the old fellow whose restaurant has the highest volume in all of Japan, serving up to 1,600 bowls a day. Asked “What does ramen mean to you?”, he shrugs “It’s how I make my living.”
Most of the movie, though, is spent lionizing Osamu Tomita, a four-time Best Ramen winner whose tiny shop — ten seats and the reservation list opens at 7 a.m. — is a mecca for aficionados drawn by his flavorful broths, handmade noodles, and “emphasis on slurpability.”
Tomita is a bit of a bad-boy, but his “commitment to the broth” seems complete, to the point of taking his weary wife and three children to rival ramen restaurants on their nights out. “Ramen Heads” picks up in its final 30 minutes, when the chef collaborates with two fellow rock stars — Shota Iida and Yuki Onishi — for a one-shot ramen pop-up that attracts diners from around the country, desperate to sample what one onlooker calls “a giant mass of umami flavor.”
“Ramen Heads” is aimed primarily at Japanese audiences, tantalizing outsiders with glimpses of exotic ingredients — Junhua pig shoulder from Yamagata, Rausu Komba seaweed from Hokkaido — but largely assuming a familiarity that probably isn’t there. More problematic are the amateurish musical choices and the breathless encomiums on the soundtrack. By the time the narrator rhapsodizes, “Ramen — the deeply satisfying object of desire — now I want you more than ever,” you may be ready for the check.
Written and directed by Koki Shigeno. Starring Osamu Tomita. At Kendall Square. 93 mins. Unrated (As G: Oodles of noodles). In Japanese, with subtitles.