Who doesn’t like ramen? The instant kind is the food of college students and those on budgets. And everyone else, because we just can’t leave ramen behind. There are a million ways to make it and dress it up, not to mention there are tons of different brands and restaurants out there. To the Japanese, ramen is as common as burgers are in America, but it is still an art form, something to be passed down from generation to generation. There’s even a museum dedicated to ramen in Yokohama and a group of eight restaurants in a Tokyo subway station nicknamed “Ramen Street.” Ramen is comfort food, but for some people, it’s a catalyst for finding their purpose in life, such as it was for the title character in the late Brittany Murphy’s 2008 film, The Ramen Girl.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) is an American in Tokyo with her boyfriend, Ethan (Gabriel Mann). He’s there for work. She’s there because she was tired of being in a long-distance relationship, but she also has a job copy editing at at a Japanese law firm. There’s not terribly much for her to do there, either–her day basically consists of fixing typos in English translations. For instance, “Don’t flash the toilet.” on an Out of Order sign becomes “Don’t flush the toilet.” Not exactly mentally challenging. Abby’s bored.
Abby consoles herself by hanging out with Ethan at a nightclub, except that he seems pretty preoccupied with business stuff. While he goes off to talk about work with a couple of his colleagues, Abby finds herself at the bar, where she meets Gretchen (Tammy Blanchard), an American who talks like she’s from the South and says she’s a hostess (read: hooker), and Charlie (Daniel Evans), a Brit who’s in Tokyo for the atmosphere.
Unfortunately for Abby, Ethan is called suddenly to Shanghai. When he leaves in the morning she’s so stunned she follows him forlornly out to the taxi without realizing she’s only wearing a towel. At least Ethan lets Abby stay in their apartment, which is paid up for the next six months. Big of him, isn’t it?
Depressed, Abby tries calling Ethan, but only gets his voicemail. She wanders aimlessly around town. One night while drinking sake on her balcony, she notices a ramen shop across the street from her apartment when she sees its red lantern suddenly glow. Abby’s too morose or drunk to really care, though, and sticks the cigarette she’s been smoking down the neck of her sake bottle.
Abby wanders into the ramen shop soon after that, but it’s so late, they’re closed. She sits down at a table and starts sobbing while pouring out her story. She’s dissatisfied with herself for being four years out of college and not having anything to show for it. Her boyfriend has left her high and dry. She doesn’t know what to do with her life. The couple who own the shop don’t understand a word she’s saying, but they bring her a bowl of ramen, which Abby gulps down hungrily. While she’s sitting there, the Lucky Cat (Maneki Neko in Japanese) seems to be waving her in, but she doesn’t know if she’s hallucinating or tired or what.
The next night, Abby goes back to the ramen shop, which is packed to the gills. She sits down at the counter, and has another bowl of ramen. Suddenly, everyone in the place bursts into laughter, from the stressed guy in the business suit at the counter to the regulars, to, well, everyone. The proprieter smiles.
Abby soon gets this idea into her head that she wants to learn to make ramen, and who better to teach her than the gentleman at the shop across the street? Problem is, there’s that pesky language barrier. The shopkeeper, Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida), and his wife, Reiko (Kimiko Yo), only know a few words of English and Abby only knows a few words of Japanese. Everyone’s glued to Abby’s Japanese-English dictionary, at least at first.
That’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Abby, who’s not used to manual labor, has to go through ramen boot camp, which means cleaning toilets, waiting tables, busing tables, putting chopsticks in cans, and washing up. She even has to learn how to dress for her job; as in, it’s better to wear sneakers, not stilettos. Eventually, though, Abby does get to do what she came to do, but it comes at a high price. Maezumi is tough on her, calling her an idiot and saying her small forehead means she has a small brain. Fortunately, Reiko’s a sweetheart, paying Abby on the sly and giving her days off.
Naturally, people are wondering what is going on with Maezumi and Reiko and Abby, although most of the folks are pulling for her. Some of them, though, have different ideas, as if Abby is fufilling Maezumi’s other needs. Sick minds know no cultural bounds. Plus, Maezumi’s reputation as a ramen chef has taken a hit because he has no successor. His only son decided to study French cuisine, and Maezumi has never forgiven him for it. Maezumi’s rival, Udagawa pounces when he sees Abby, bragging that his son is all set to be his successor. His ramen shop is very fancy, with a company van that has a picture of he and his son, standing back to back like they’re on Iron Chef.
Adding to the pressure, there’s a ramen guru, the Grand Master, who evaluates every prospective ramen chef in the area. If someone’s got it, he gives his blessing. If they don’t have it, it’s back to the drawing board. Or off to a different career. Udagawa is sure that his son will get the blessing. Maezumi rashly makes a bet with him that if the Grand Master doesn’t bless Abby’s ramen, he’ll close his shop.
The Ramen Girl gets pretty detailed about the process of making ramen. The only part we don’t get to see is the noodles being made, except for mixing the dough, but we do see Reiko portion them out and the cooking process. I can see why they’d leave the shaping out, because it apparently takes some doing to learn the art of noodle-making. It would have been fun to see Brittany Murphy twirling ramen dough, though. However, the emphasis in The Ramen Girl is the broth, because without it, there’s obviously no soup.
Good broth doesn’t begin pretty, and Abby is shocked at first to find pig’s heads in stock pots. She adapts pretty quickly, but while she gets the technical aspect of broth-making, she doesn’t yet get how to make it all come together. Maezumi takes Abby to see his mother, and she says the broth is too bland. Abby needs to put her heart and soul into her cooking. “All I have is pain,” Abby says. “Then start with your tears,” replies Mother.
That’s not a problem for Abby, who stands glumly over her stockpot later on, and sure enough, some tears fall in. She tries out her broth that night on some of the regulars, and as soon as they drink it, they start blubbering one after the other. Maezumi comes back from an errand to see the waterworks, and when he wonders what happened, Reiko pours him some of Abby’s ramen. Well, Sensei not only bawls, but he runs upstairs. Reiko and Abby are psyched.
Now that she’s got her broth well in hand, Abby has to work on her presentation, because the Grand Master is approaching, and he’s hard to please. The thing with ramen composition is that it has to feature life from the earth, the sea, and the mountains. Abby comes up with a flavor combo of pork, tomatoes, corn, and peppers, which she calls Goddess Ramen, and it’s pretty strange to the Japanese palate. With Maezumi’s bet hanging over everything, Abby’s unconventional mix is all the more risky. Will she make it? Or will the Grand Master spit out his first taste?
The Ramen Girl is a fun movie, but also has a hint of hodge-podge. The editing and story seem a little choppy at times, which is a shame, because the film is engaging and should be allowed to play out a tiny bit more. It also feels slightly hackneyed, as if Like Water For Chocolate and The Karate Kid had a head-on collision. I kept expecting Abby to mutter “Wax on, wax off,” and strike a crane pose. However, it’s great to see her grow and find her direction in life. Brittany Murphy puts in a strong performance, showcasing both her acting abilities and the ramen her character learns to create. So much so that anyone who watches this may just start foraging for some of those yummy noodles.
That concludes my Day Two of Food In Film Blogathon. If anyone’s looking for more of this feast of ours, head on over to Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow with another blog post!