Saturday, September 5, 2009

All Ramen Is Not Created Equal

Coming out of our favorite Japanese restaurant the other night we ran into a friend who told us he had just seen the movie "Ramen Girl" on DVD and recommended it to us. I was pretty excited at the prospect since (1) there are so few movies in English that have anything to do with Japan, (2) I love ramen, and (3) my all time favorite Japanese movie was Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”, a wonderful “ramen western” in which a tough Japanese truck driver befriends a widow struggling to operate a ramen store in Tokyo and helps her to turn it into a success.

When I got home I found the Ramen Girl trainer on YouTube which looked promising, as well as the following description:

"RAMEN GIRL: An American woman is stranded in Tokyo after breaking up with her boyfriend. Searching for direction in life, she trains to be a ramen noodle chef under a tyrannical Japanese master..."
Sadly, when I was finally able to watch the movie it was very disappointing. Although she was done no favors by whomever it was who wrote the script, Brittany Murphy – who I had never seen before - managed to turn in one of the most vacuous performances I have ever seen. I was tempted to turn off the video after almost every scene, but continued in part because I was perversely impressed with how consistently bad it was and began to wonder if they could maintain that low level of performance. I was not disappointed. In retrospect, the only reason I am happy I did so was because I subsequently found a review on The House Next Door blog which provides a very amusing (at least if you suffered through it) “live-blog review” of the film.

The only saving grace for me was the performance of the veteran Japanese actor Toshiyuki Nishida in the role of the crusty ramen master who, for unfathomable reasons, agrees to let Murphy work in his shop. Among his other roles, Nishida is probably best known in Japan for his work in the “Tsuribaka” series of films (of which there are about 20 in all) in which he portrays Densuke Hamasaki (“Hama-chan”), a Japanese salaryman who works in a Japanese construction company and who his supervisor has dubbed “tsuribaka” (the “fishing fool”) because of his passion for fishing.

The sub-plot of the series revolves around the fact that one day Hama-chan met and befriended an older fisherman who turned out to be the CEO of the company that Hama-chan works for. The stories focus on their relationship inside and outside of the office. There is also a comic series covering the same stories.

My viewing of Ramen Girl did have one positive result in it caused me to go back and watch Tampopo again. That is a movie I highly recommend, in part because in several scenes it captures some important insights into Japanese life and culture in a very humorous way. Those include:

~ The French restaurant scene dealing with conformity and inter-generational issues;
~ The spaghetti scene dealing with the question of whether to slurp; and
~ The ramen appreciation scene, including a young Ken Watanabe, perhaps better known to American audiences for his role in “The Last Samurai."

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Yeah, Brittany Murphy is just terrible. The best performance she ever managed was in Clueless, and that was 14 years ago.

Still haven't seen Tampopo, ashamed to admit. In a gross oversight by whomever handles these things, it isn't available on Netflix. Oh well. It's now safely on our "saved queue" for whenever it can potentially make money for some studio on some side of some ocean somewhere.