My friend and I went to see this film that is part of the Eiga Sai Festival, an annual event, hosted by the Japan Foundation, Manila, with the screening held at Edsa Shangrila in Ortigas. This film festival is a widely-anticipated event and lots of people line up hours before the showing time to get sure seats. Admission is free, and it’s a first-come-first-served event.
The first film to be shown for that day is entitled God of Ramen. It’s one of the titles that my friend and I initially wanted to see in the list of featured films for this year. It’s a documentary of one of the legends of ramen in Japan. I believe God of Ramen is in the must-watch film of most people for this festival, because with all the ramen craze still happening in the metro, many would be curious about the ramen Japan considers as the best in their land, and the story behind its phenomenal success.
The story of the film started in 2001, and we saw the outside of the then Taishoken Ramen shop lined up by lots of people waiting to get served with ramen cooked by Kazuo Yamagishi, the chef of that restaurant. Its customers usually line up for at least two hours before they get to eat ramen for that day. The story continued with narrating the wide patronage this ramen shop gets from all its regulars, and illustrated how a typical day goes for Yamagishi, how the ramen is prepared, with his apprentices observing him and learns from his way of cooking.
The unexpected part of the film for me was the way it also focused, not just on the legendary ramen, but also on the personal life of Yamagishi. His wife died a few years before the documentary began its filming, and the story also tackled on how Yamagishi was dealing with this grief. It also showed how Yamagishi was suffering from physical ailments (his knees were in a bad condition) and how it was hindering him to do his job in the ramen shop.
I think what made this film appealing is that it showed the personality of the chef behind this legendary ramen. Yamagishi was a simple man, with a generous spirit and a persevering heart. He let his apprentices learn from him without anything in return. Even though they built up ramen shops of their own, bearing the ‘Taishoken’ label, Yamagishi did not bother to demand ‘franchise fees’. He made ramen all his life, and he’s contented with just doing that.
This is why when his knees got in the way of his ramen making, it disturbed him a lot. When he was hospitalized for months, his ramen shop suffered. The long lines disappeared because his apprentices cannot replicated the cooking of their master chef, and the customers knew that the ramen was not of the master chef’s cooking. After Yamagishi’s successful knee surgery, he went back to the ramen shop and started working again. Not even later that day, the lines outside of the shop returned when people heard that the master was back. They were not disappointed when they tasted the ramen for that day. Yamagishi really works magic on his ramen, one customer said that day.
Many years after, the ramen shop had to be relocated because a high-rise building was to be built within the restaurant’s spot. In its new location, Yamagishi was no longer cooking. He has retired (his body won’t let him do the work for long hours) but he would still be found seated outside the store and greeting the guests that come in.
The video below captured one of these encounters with Yamagishi.
The filming period of that documentary lasted for more than a decade (2001 – 2012). Yamagishi grew older in front of the camera. The film showed a deeper look into the Yamagishi’s life, even paying attention to details like the kittens painting, which served as a symbolism for his love for his wife. It also showed the kind of culture Japanese people have. One of Yamagishi’s apprentices, whose ramen shop became a success, gave back to the master chef by taking care of his apartment and living fees. Yamagishi had no children, but he considered his apprentices his children.
Today, several ramen shops bearing the ‘Taishoken’ label can be found, not just in Japan, but also overseas. I will never be able to taste the original ramen, but I would still want to go to one of these ‘franchises’ to get a glimpse of even just a shadow of Yamagishi’s legendary ramen.
God of Ramen delivered a heartwarming but a bittersweet story. Yamagishi said these words himself, he was contented with what he was able to do with his life, because he knew he gave his best. For a man who gave his all for his craft, I bet he did. I hope I would also be able to say that for my own. 😀
Yamagishi passed away on April 1, 2015. But his legacy to the ramen world lives on.