Saturday, June 02, 2012

Ramen Girl: a review

Ramen Girlmay be a Grade B flick, but if you've spent any time in Japan or know the language, there are compensations that make this film a lot of fun. The premise is totally contrived, as well as the scenes where the ramen miraculously induces giddy joy or hysterical weeping; and the idea of an American girl who can't speak a word of Japanese apprenticing herself to a Japanese ramen chef who can't speak a word of English is beyond unrealistic -- just as the dialogue in which the girl speaks English and the Japanese ramen chef speaks Japanese, each talking past the uncomprehending other.

What made the movie interesting for me was this: if you understand the language, the harsh, derogatory condescending language of the ramen chef is a dead-on ringer for a particular Japanese character type, and those who recognize it will be highly amused. There are multiple levels of discourse in Japanese depending on whom you're addressing and how respectful or disrespectful you're choosing to be, just as there probably are in any language -- only, in Japanese these are very highly nuanced. The language used in criticism of the American girl is about as bog-low as you can get. This is also reflected in the harsh comportment of the chef toward the girl.

The business about her not being able to capture the damashi or tamashi (魂), or interior spirit of authentic Japanese ramen broth is a bit of a comical stretch, especially when she only finally succeeds by adding her heartfelt tears to the ramen broth, but the manner in which the chef's brusque and harsh demeanor masks an interior and barely-expressed affection for the girl is also on target for the Japanese male, who is typically as incapable of expressing tender emotions as the Teutonic Northern European. There was an attempt at a touching moment toward the end, which almost succeeded.

Another interesting moment was when the ramen master was judging between the dishes of two competing ramen houses, and the suspense builds as he samples the noodles and the broth. A far better Japanese classic along these lines, and one a bit less fanciful but no less entertaining, is the brilliant film, Tampopostarring Ken Watanabe, which I recommend to any interested readers. The scene where the aged connoisseur demonstrates how to properly eat a bowl of ramen is worth the whole movie.


Steve said...

My wife is Japanese and I concur that this was a very good movie. I was a bit surprised to see it on this blog but nevertheless agree with your critique

Christopher said...

Alas, Brittany Murphy passed away in 2009 -- a forgotten film in her illustrious career, I will have to look into this one.

My appreciation of Ramen is of a limited financial budget and extends to the 3-for-$1.00 variety at the supermarket, 'hot pepper' flavor, seasoned with rooster sauce, fresh diced Indian chili peppers, and an egg. I imagine the chef in the story would no doubt berate me for the sacrilege.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Hi Chris,

Apart from the fact that the packaged instant ramen varieties that sell for 3-5 for a dollar have the nutritious value of cardboard, they're really not all that bad tasting.

But you can't really think of them as the same food as real ramen. Despite the fact that they're both noodles, they taste quite different. Real ramen has a broth that is painstakingly prepared hours ahead of consumption, sometimes overnight, just as Vietnamese Pho is -- not to mention the vegetables, roots, and meats that are added to ramen.

However, if you think of instant "ramen" as something altogether different from real ramen, it's not too bad. You can also add a few things that supplement the taste, like a raw egg on the side, or green onions.