Sunday, February 1, 2009

スクープ!ラーメンガール ザー ムービー (Scoop! A Review of "The Ramen Girl")

After chowing down at Reon (see below), I decided to make a full-blown (full bowl?) day of noodles and catch the by now (in)famous "Ramen Girl" flick in Shinjuku. News about the movie has been kicking around blogostan for a couple of years at this point, with a recent spike in chatter over the last few weeks leading up to its release. Starring Brittany Murphy and Nishida Toshiyuki in what people have been calling an "American Tampopo remake," "The Ramen Girl" tells the tale of an American girl stranded in Tokyo who takes it upon herself to become (surprise!) a ramen cook. I was a bit skeptical, but it had been about 20 years since the last ramen movie, so what was I going to do, not see it? There was an udon movie a few years ago, but ramen was overdue; that said, I don't think we'll see a soba (buckwheat noodle) movie anytime in the near future.

For the time being, Teatro Shinjuku is the only place in town (or in the world for that matter) to watch "Ramen Girl." Presumably it will get a limited release in Japan and most likely a DVD release in the States a few months later, with a slim chance of a couple smaller theaters picking it up. For its part, Teatro is a more than adequate venue - a spacious art house theater located in a basement amongst the cavernous department stores of Shinjuku San-chome. They've been known to screen cool flicks like Wakamatsu Kôji's recent United Red Army epic, "Jitsuroku Rengô Sekigun," and the big screen and comfy seats are better than most limited run theaters in New York (I'm thinking of you, Film Forum). Other than the fact that they turn up the heat way too high and charge 200 yen for a water bottle the size of two gyoza, I got no quarrel with the Teatro Shinjuku.

Unfotunately, "The Ramen Girl" fails to deliver the satisfaction of the noodles it's ostensibly dedicated to. In the end, despite the Tokyo setting, it is a Hollywood Movie (writ large) through and through, with the same trite plot development arc that we all learned in fourth grade: a problem arises, a journey is begun, a crisis manifests itself, recovery transpires, and eventual success ensues. Brittany Murphy's performance is adequate if a bit wide-eyed and awkward, and Nishida Toshiyuki seems to be going through the motions as his standard grumpy-but-loveable ojisan character, which is enjoyable enough. But what's missing from this film is...the ramen. "Tampopo" was a paean to food and the act of eating, with noodles taking a triumphal seat; "The Ramen Girl" is a second-rate "Lost in Translation" that happens to take the slurpy stuff as its MacGuffin.

For a film about ramen, "The Ramen Girl" doesn't seem to pay very much attention to it. Sure, the whole story is about a lonely white girl learning to cook the Japanese populist staple food, but we see precious little of said noodles themselves. I say this not as a ramen addict denied his noodle porn money shot, but rather as someone trying to stand in the position of a viewer unfamiliar with ramen - with just a few precious shots of noodles, soup, and toppings, and little in the way of explanation, its hard to tell what the fuss is about. Brittany Murphy's character Abby is drawn to the neighborhood ramen shop after being dumped by her man because it seems warm and welcoming; she wants to be a part of it. In the end, of course, she wins the respect of the ramen shop owners and clientele, but what goes in the bowl might as well be curry, mac and cheese, or any other comfort food.

I'm not expecting a dissection of broth types or Aristotelian discourses on the finer points of tonkotsu and toppings, but I felt frustrated that the viewer was given so few chances to see (or hear) what the big deal was about. There's so much room to work with a food like ramen (see: dozens of blogs all over the internet), that its disappointing that the director (Robert Allan Ackerman) pays so little attention to it. Aside from a brief montage-like trip to the Yokohama Raumen Museum, all we get is a couple shots of the standard shôyû that Nishida's shop dishes out. And Abby's big culinary coup d'etat is the idea to add corn, green peppers, and tomato slices to a bowl? Please. The director could have behooved himself to do a wee bit more research before taking on this endeavor.

Much of the rest of the film feels made out of cut-out stereotypes, which is unsurprising, considering that it's essentially a two-set piece, shuttling back and forth between Abby's (disconcertingly large) apartment, and the interior of the shop itself. For its part, the shop is an nostalgic phantasm of an old-school mid-Showa period ramen shop, one that I've never seen the likes of in Tokyo or elsewhere. When Abby steps into the shop, she steps into an imagined Japan that, while more sophisticated than the unholy trinity of the Sushi-Geisha-Fujiyama stereotype, is still a long way off from the contemporary Tokyo it purports to represent.

Along the way, Abby meets a cast of overacted characters, like an American hostess who insists on speaking with a southern accent, a ramen-loving Korean-Japanese love interest, and a twatty Brit whose presence is just as inexplicable and insufferable as that of the ubiquitous expat he purports to portray. More fun are the Japanese supporting cast, who include a couple of chatty old ladies with dye jobs and some jokey construction workers. They manage to ham it up a bit while giving entertaining portrayals of some of the kinds of characters you might find in a real Tokyo ramen shop.

I'm trashing and thrashing, but "Ramen Girl" has its moments. Watching Brittany Murphy and Nishida Toshiyuki traipse through Tsukiji Fish Market looking for ingredients is fun, and Ishibashi Renji (two photos up, with Nishida) is a hoot as the bad guy rival ramen chef who lays down a bet that the director seems to have half-forgotten about by the end of the film. Perhaps the greatest moment is the appearance of Yamazaki Tsutomu (pictured above), who is by now immortalized as Gorô the hero of Tampopo, as a yakuza don-cum-ramen master who needs only a single noodle and a drop of broth to assess a bowl's quality. But bits like these are unfortunately balanced out by some cringe-inducing sequences, like the orgiastic orientalism of a blonde girl carried on a palanquin through the streets of Tokyo.

"The Ramen Girl" is not a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either. There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, and I'd recommend it as "fun for fans." In the end however, I have to give it a thumbs down, as it failed the final test of what a movie about ramen should do - make you want to eat ramen!

When the lights came up and I gathered my coat and turned around, I wasn't surprised to see that the population of the theater was made up primarily of older men - after all, this was 4:30 on a Tuesday, which is not prime theater time for the conventionally employed. There was one particular older man, however, who caught my eye - none other than Araki Nobuyoshi, the world famous photographer and chronicler of life, sex, death, and Tokyo for the past 40 years. I considered asking him for his thoughts about the movie, but decided not to, since he was (of course) on a date with a pretty young thing about a quarter of his age, and I didn't want to interrupt. I kind of kicked myself afterwards for not saying hello to one of the greatest Japanese photographers of the 20th century, but in the end, its enough for me to know that the genius Araki is a ramen fan too.


Sean Michael Wilson said...

Hi Nate,

its Sean Michael, editor of the AX collection book. are you in Tokyo? Maybe we can meet up next time i am there, onagaishimasu.

By the way i was in an NHK film with Nishida Toshiyuki last year (it was filmed in Kumamoto), just playing a background gajin gentleman in the Meiji era, no big deal.

Lastly, do you know the Tokyo American Club? I am in their Feb 2009 magazine, and AX/gekiga is mentioned there.


Nate said...

Hey Sean,

What's up man? Thanks for checking out the blog. I'm about to drop a couple more posts, so keep checking back...if you like noodles, that is.

I'd definitely love to meet up in Tokyo. I'm living in Takadanobaba and doing research at Waseda, and I'll be there at the very least through the end of this calendar year, so I'm sure we can figure something out. Are you in Japan often? Where do you live generally?

That's pretty funny about the Tokyo American Club - very different from my image of what would be in their magazine. When I was in college (which is how Ryan and I met), I spent a summer interning at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kamiya-cho. I had more than my fair share of expensed lunches at the TAC. In the end I got pretty wigged out by the expat scene and fled to academia. Is the article online? If not, could you send me a copy?

Hitomi said...

I finally watched the movie! I thought it was cute and fun for what it was - though what was up with Toshi's bachelor pad?? Anywayz, I'm looking forward to some Waseda ramen next week. If you have any recommendations other than Ganko, lemme know - otherwise I'll probably just end up at Ippudo : )