If you’re planning to see “Come Back Anytime” at DOC NYC, you might want to build in a stop to a ramen shop on your way back home — let me suggest the hole-in-the-wall Minca on 5th Street in the East Village, where you can sit at the counter, marveling at the intricate preparation of each bowl where slices of chashu are gently grazed by the flame of a blowtorch and a wafer of dried seaweed is placed off to the side with the care typically associated with an artist who works on miniatures. The shoebox of a restaurant is tucked into the middle of a block with not much foot traffic in front of it, not unlike Bizentei in Tokyo where director John Daschbach somehow squeezes in to observe Masamoto Ueda and his wife Kasuko tend to the six customers that can sit in front of them at any given time as well as a small batch of tables upstairs, dishing out soulful sustenance with every order of noodles that goes out and having it returned to them by keeping the company of their grateful regulars.
“Come Back Anytime” will surely delight anyone seduced by sumptuously photographed gyoza frying and cabbage being lovingly diced for pickling, but like its humble chef who relies more on the depths of flavors rather than any fancy ingredients to make his meals satisfying, the film that follows the Uedas over the course of a year is full of rewards even if it lacks any major dramatic events. When heat and smell are off the table as sensual cinematic elements, Daschbach leans on an inviting Vince Guaraldi-esque piano score and his own cozy compositions inside Bizentei to give one the feel of the place, enlisting the help of customers that kept coming through the doors since the ramen shop first opened in 1979 at a previous location. One regular admits that over 30 years, he’s only ever had the Chashu Ramen since he couldn’t bear the thought of anything being better — as it turns out, Masamoto, who is commonly referred to by his clientele as “The Master,” actually felt similarly, only expanding the menu beyond that dish and gyoza to include a salt-flavored ramen and a spicy miso as the years went on.
For the patrons of Bizentei, the ambiance is as important as the food, as great as it may be, and likely why Masamato has built his entire life around it, practically having no use for his free time besides walking his dogs and spending most of it either tending to his garden, going out pear-picking or looking for fresh bamboo in the forest to bring back to the restaurant. Although the film teases something more dramatic when Masamato makes allusions to the life he could’ve led, once falling in with the wrong crowd before his father-in-law thought he could make a go of a restaurant space, what “Come Back Anytime” captures is far more moving when the communal space he and Kasuko have built through sheer dedication and a belief in their individual taste endures. Although the couple are the first to say nothing lasts forever, with no plans to pass the restaurant along to anyone else — their children curiously kept off-camera during the film — Daschbach has created a keepsake not only for those who frequent Bizentei, but for anyone that has a place that makes them feel at home, giving off considerable warmth even if one is prevented by the screen from indulging in the ramen.