One of the nice things about inexpensive DVD technology is that you can find all these quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of and watch them at your leisure. And once Amazon figures out that you like quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of, it keeps showing you new ones. When I became aware of The Ramen Girl, buying it was a no-brainer for me because I've always liked Brittany Murphy, and because it's set in Japan, for which I have a soft spot. I've only been there once myself but my husband has traveled there extensively and has brought me back stacks of their beautiful children's picture books, and I've taken some beginning Japanese lessons. I hope to go back in the not-too-distant future.
The story begins when Abby is abandoned by her commitment-phobic boyfriend after she has followed him to Tokyo. Wandering around without purpose, she is attracted by a little ramen shop near the apartment in which her boyfriend has left her (a deleted scene indicates that the rent has been paid in advance for six months, which seems a little odd). Abby decides that she wants to be able to make people happy and that ramen is the way to do it, so she pesters the shop owner to teach her, even though she speaks no Japanese and he speaks no English. Over the course of the next year, Abby scrubs the little restaurant within an inch of its life (shades of Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off") and finally learns to put her heart into her cooking.
There are no two ways about it: this movie is a mess. Yet I still quite liked it, which I think is due to my liking of Brittany and Japan, and perhaps also of movies that go for a slightly different setting than, say, the New York/Chicago/Los Angeles bright young professional scene. I think this movie also must have meant something special to Brittany herself, as she's the second named producer on it. What I enjoyed was that the character does grow, and that the shop owner's wife and the shop's regular customers are clearly rooting for Abby to succeed. I also thought that Toshiyuki Nishida, who played the shop owner, was very good.
What didn't work for me is a little more complicated. The first thing is that the movie couldn't decide if it wanted to be mystical or not. When Abby is eating in the restaurant for the first time, she "sees" the large lucky cat statue on a shelf beckon to her. When she eats there the next time, she and another customer, who is also clearly exhausted and depressed, find themselves giggling like schoolchildren when they eat the ramen; it's implied that the chef can magically make people feel better. Later, when Abby "puts her tears" into her broth, her customers all break down into tears themselves. It's a bit like the movie Chocolat, when Vianne puts magic aphrodisiacs and other things into her confections. In addition, when Abby bursts into the shop wanting to work there, the pots and pans start moving as though from the force of her will. The problem is that the movie should have either embraced this supernatural aspect or left it out; it's as though the writers just couldn't make up their mind what kind of movie it was supposed to be. (Remember Exit to Eden, which didn't know if it was a comedy or an erotic film, and therefore succeeded as neither?)
Along those same lines, there was a rather ridiculous sub-plot that absolutely didn't belong in the movie. Early on, Abby meets a couple of American ex-pats, one of whom is a gorgeous red-head named Gretchan who sports a fake Southern accent and who works as a hostess, sometimes providing "favors" for her sugar daddy's friends in return for the apartment he keeps her in. She shows up once with a black eye, implying abuse, and shows up another time drunk and unhappy. But that's it. She has little purpose in the movie, because Abby is bright enough that she doesn't need to be shown how not to live -- we have no indication that Abby's headed down a path that hopeless. There are apparently several deleted scenes involving this character, and I suspect they would have taken out all of them except that they clumsily use Gretchan as the means to get Abby's new love interest, Toshi (played by Sohee Park), to her apartment. Deleting that scene probably would have made things confusing, but they couldn't leave it in without us knowing who Gretchan was, so we get some but not all of Gretchan's story. I would rather have had Abby meet Toshi in a different way.
And speaking of Toshi.... I liked him just fine, but there was a point early in the movie when I actually thought Abby might end up with the slightly chubby, slightly older regular customer at the ramen shop, who is clearly smitten with her. I was thrilled when I thought it was headed in that direction, because that really would have been something out of the ordinary, and there was lots of opportunity for his character development. But true to romantic comedy form, the gorgeous young Toshi, who I mentally nicknamed "Cheekbones," showed up in time to take the romantic lead. His part is actually quite small, which is good because it lets Abby save herself instead of being saved, but I still think I was secretly rooting for that chubby customer.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW) Pacing, particularly in terms of character development, was another issue for me. There's one of those I'm-so-happy-now-I'm-dancing-in-my-apartment montages quite early in the film, for no apparent reason. And Abby goes from doing nothing but scrubbing to having perfect ramen technique, even though we have not once seen her sensei show her how to do anything. Instead, we see him telling her in Japanese, which she still doesn't understand, that she needs to stop cooking with her head and start cooking with her heart -- but we haven't even seen her doing it with her head yet! The movie then tries to introduce an artificial "deadline" by having the Ramen Master plan to visit in two months' time. His blessing is apparently required before a ramen chef can name a successor, and a rival chef taunts Maezumi by bragging that the Master will test that chef's son at that time. When the rival then mocks Maezumi for training a blond American girl, Maezumi boasts that the Master will also test Abby, and that if she fails, he will stop making ramen.
Suddenly, then, whether or not Abby will succeed becomes dire and pressing, in an extremely contrived way. And here's where it gets a little confusing: Abby does fail (the Master says her broth is good but she needs more experience), but I can't tell whether Maezumi stops cooking or not. I think he does, because later Abby displays a photograph showing Maezumi and his wife in Paris with their estranged son, but for all I know that could just have been a vacation. And Maezumi tells Abby that she is his successor, but she doesn't stay in Tokyo and take over his restaurant; instead, we flash to a year later, in which she has her own little ramen shop in New York -- where Cheekbones finds her again after having learned from her to follow his dreams instead of working in a job he hates.
Since I'm nitpicking, two other things kind of bugged me. First, Abby learns almost no Japansese after a year of working in a restaurant where no English is spoken. I think this was done so that Abby and Maezumi could continue to have their misunderstandings and frustration with one another, but it speaks to a lack of dedication on her part -- if she really was that serious, she would have realized that learning the language was part of the process. Second, only a year to get back to the States and find the money to open a restaurant in New York City? I guess we're meant to believe that her ramen was so good that someone was willing to back her, but after watching a lot of Top Chef, I have the idea that opening a restaurant, no matter how small, takes a hell of a lot of money. Especially in New York City.
Once again, it seems that all I've done about this movie is gripe, but really, I did like it! I just think it could have been a much better movie if it weren't so confused in terms of focus and pacing. I've watched a few of the deleted scenes but not all of them; I suspect the largest problem for this movie was in deciding what and what not to keep. I'll definitely watch this again at some point. If you like Brittany Murphy or enjoy romantic comedies in unusual settings, you might enjoy The Ramen Girl.