"The Ramen Girl" opens as a familiar retread of "Lost in Translation," ends with a wonderful homage to "Tampopo," and spends all the space in between in its own happy world. This is a film that wants so much to share its joys with all who will watch; it's lovely and sweet and just gosh darn huggable, and if the plot trips up along the way, we're easy to forgive.
Brittany Murphy stars as Abby, who followed her boyfriend to Toyko only to get dumped after a couple weeks, leaving her stranded, a stranger in a strange land. After a breakdown in the neighborhood ramen shop, she finds herself drawn to the place again and again. And why not? Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida), the owner and cook, may be an incurable grump, but there's something magical going on in the broth: in one wonderful sequence, the noodles cause fits of laughter between the strangers who share them. (Later, a separate batch will cause a flood of tears among the shop's regulars.)
Suddenly sensing a purpose, Abby decides she is going to learn how to cook ramen, and Maezumi will be her sensei. Never mind that Maezumi wants nothing to do with this girl who doesn't know the language. This is Abby's purpose. Nothing will stop her.
Except, perhaps, reality. We expect the early scenes where the cook grumbles as the girl does all the hard labor - there's a bit of Mr. Miyagi in Maezumi's method. But then, slowly, Abby finally gets to make her own broths, but to her surprise, they fail. Her technique is correct, she is told, but her food lacks soul. It is not enough to simply follow the recipe. She must find her heart.
It is no spoiler to tell you that she eventually finds her soul; the film is too kind-hearted to deny her, or us, such joys. The pleasures come not from the story but its characters and how they fill the time as they go from plot point to plot point. Abby is given a new love interest (Sohee Park), and their courtship is cautious, friendly, endearing, especially as the script offers the characters parallels in passion-vs.-regular employment (she's willing to give up her day job to follow her dreams; he's not, and at times thinks such thoughts to be too American).
Maezumi, meanwhile, reveals a sadness behind the gruff, which takes us into well-worn story territory, with Abby becoming something of a surrogate daughter - except watch how sweetly Nishida plays it, and how well he and Murphy connect in their scenes. And around them, the shop is filled with the expected colorful characters, yet their kindness and sense of neighborhood family lifts them above cliché; there are such smiles to be had every time these people enter the frame.
The script, from first-timer Becca Topol, easily glides through the breezy relationships and affection for the kitchen. But it's also hindered by a strange subplot involving Gretchen (Tammy Blanchard), a fellow American who speaks with an admittedly fake Southern belle accent and fancies herself a high class escort. Often at her side is Charlie (Daniel Evans), whose English voice also sounds like a put-on (Evans is an authentic Brit but is hamming it up in the role). The two are an island of Western poseurs trapped in the East, both playing the role of the rich and carefree when both are obvious fibs. As they invade Abby's story here and there, it's like they're crashers from a separate, quirkier film. Why are they here? As they hide behind false personas, are they a counterpoint to Abby, who yearns to express her true self? Are they merely oddball sidekicks adding a new plot thread to pad out the running time? What gives, movie?
The film makes up for such confusion by hauling in Tsutomu Yamazaki, straight out of "Tampopo," to play the absurdly pompous "Grand Master" of ramen. His take on this little man whose blasé opinions can start or end entire careers is a pure delight, precise physical comedy telling us so much about the character before he says a word.
It's a nice touch, one of many for this movie. "The Ramen Girl" is an unassuming, tender comedy, anchored by excellent performances (Murphy hasn't been this good in a while, and it's nice to see her back in top form) and lovely character work. Call it as heartfelt as home cooking.
Video & Audio
Shot on digital video, "The Ramen Girl" suffers from excessive grain in most night shots, and colors aren't as crisp as they should be. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is free of digital interference, however, and detail is decent enough to make this a passable low budget presentation.
The soundtrack has no need for the Dolby 5.1 treatment but gets it anyway. Dialogue is clear, and the musical selections have a rich sound to them. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included. (Note: English subs over the frequent Japanese dialogue is non-removable, which is a shame; I'd like to experience this story once as Abby does, without knowing most of what's being said around her.)
Although it's billed as an alternate ending (2:32; 1.85:1 anamorphic), the scene presented here is merely an extended one, adding to the movie's final sequence. It adds too much, though, with cheap jokes and awkward timings that clutter up what should play out with greater simplicity. Thankfully, the filmmakers opted for the better, shorter version.
They also opted to wisely trim seventeen deleted scenes (24:05 total; 1.85:1) that would've left the film overlong and overly jumbled with excessive subplots. Included in the reject pile is a collection of scenes at Abby's bland day job, a ridiculous bit expanding the role of a rival restaurant (treated here as Cobra Kai-esque villains), and a massive, hammy, and totally uninvolving storyline involving Gretchen and her dangerous habits. These scenes would've been death for the movie.
The film's spoiler-heavy trailer (2:00; 1.78:1) rounds out the set.
"The Ramen Girl" is a fine example of how old ideas can be made fresh with solid characters and the right tone. Mellow even when there's screaming, warm even when there are tears, the film is Recommended for a cozy evening in.