Broth in translation

Brittany Murphy stars in a tale of heartache, endurance and the perfect bowl of noodles

by George Hadley-Garcia

Although she was born in 1977 (in Atlanta, Georgia), Brittany Murphy is a show-business veteran who grew up fast.

Murphy, an only child who was raised in New Jersey and California, started acting in regional theater at the age of 9, going into TV commercials aged 13. She scored her first big film role in the 1995 teen comedy “Clueless.” Though seemingly very well adjusted, Murphy specialized for a long time in playing characters who were troubled or mentally disturbed, as in the 1998 TV-movie remake of a 1960s film movie about romance between two asylum inmates, “David and Lisa”; the 2002 Eminem vehicle “8 Mile”; and the movie version of Frank Miller’s dark graphic novels, “Sin City,” in 2005. Aside from film, her TV credits have included roles in shows such as “Frasier,” “Party of Five,” “Murphy Brown” and “Blossom.”

But now she appears in a brand-new and unusual role: that of a young American stranded in Tokyo after she breaks up with her boyfriend.

“I wasn’t the first or last person to think of ‘Lost in Translation,’ ” she explains. “I really liked that movie. I liked the relationships and the actors of course, but more than that, I liked the ambience; that whole setting of Tokyo. Like, it was all very modern and some of it familiar, but it was also very foreign, you know, kind of intriguing and almost frightening.”

The new movie, “The Ramen Girl,” written by Becca Topol and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, finds Murphy deciding not to run back to the safe comfort of home in the United States, but to stay in Tokyo and eventually become a ramen chef, training under a tyrannical but good-hearted Japanese master chef (played by veteran star Toshiyuki Nishida).

“I like the idea of a character who’s, um, set adrift in what is to her a strange environment. Because then she has to decide what she’s going to do there, and it’s complicated by the personal crisis in her life, the end of a relationship. Which, whether it was good or bad, the break-up hurts. So she has this personal and this geographic situation going on, and her decisions will reveal what kind of a person she is.”

Like such films as “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Like Water for Chocolate,” “The Ramen Girl” combines relationships, struggle, an “exotic” locale and a young woman’s journey from being naive, innocent and inept to becoming confident, knowing and adept at her chosen trade.

“I love to eat, but like, who doesn’t?” Murphy laughs. “So I also like movies or even books where food plays a major part. Like, there are novels now that actually give you recipes, which I think is so cool, especially when it fits right in with the story. And doing ‘Ramen Girl,’ I did learn a lot about ramen!

“Everyone knows what ramen is, even if they know it by a different name, like Cup of Noodles in the USA. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and of course there’s a tremendous variety in the noodles and in the preparation. I feel like I got a sort of education in cooking and ramen.”

Murphy says that filming in Japan was a good experience, if a little different from how she’d imagined it might be.

“What I sort of thought it would be like was very, um, efficient and fast, you know, very modern, very businesslike. I felt kind of intimidated about it before I got to Japan and met the people I’d be working with. But everyone, really, it just turned out to be very positive. And not what I thought.

“What I found was the Japanese are very patient with foreigners. And not just polite, not in a cold way, but sincerely nice about it. And they do a good job but they don’t lose sight of the fact that personal relationships and communication are important.”

As well as Nishida, Murphy’s costars include Niigata-born Korean actor Sohee Park and Tsutomu Yamazaki, the star of 1985 “noodle Western” “Tampopo” — another movie about ramen. She offers, “I worked on pronouncing their names right after I memorized them. With Japanese, it’s not so difficult, because mostly you pronounce what you see spelled out.”

Murphy’s interaction with the locals certainly seems to have piqued her interest. She says, “I did share my character’s interest in Japanese men. I think they’re underrated, the way we think of them in America. I haven’t seen lots and lots of Japanese movies, but most of the ones I’ve seen, the men are like . . . they’re so fierce. It’s beyond macho — it’s almost ridiculous. They’re scary. And maybe, I don’t know, it used to be like that, but now I’d say Japanese men, besides being good-looking and nicely groomed, they’re quite polite and attentive.

“I didn’t find out (whether) they’re romantic because they’re polite and just flirting and I’m an actress, or if they were kind of interested in me because I’m a foreigner.”

Murphy presumably didn’t investigate further, since in 2007 she married screenwriter Simon Monjack.

Murphy is aware that this film, while it might become a hit in Japan, isn’t likely to create box-office waves in the U.S., where it has yet to be given a release date. “I’m not Julia Roberts, and even the title is going to confuse some people who don’t live in the big cities,” she admits. But she hopes that “The Ramen Girl” might lead to more projects that offer her characters with more depth and complexity than the teen roles she hopes she’s finally outgrown.

“If you stay looking young, it can be a kind of a hindrance, professionally,” she says. “The younger the role, the more, well, simplistic it tends to be. And after you’ve been acting for so long, you do begin looking for more challenges.

“When I was approached to do this, and when I got to meet the people who were going to make it, I was impressed that they chose me, because I’m so everyday, sort of. Like, they could have gone with someone who does more of the art movies, like Parker Posey, or some European type of girl — or an actual European!” she laughs. “You don’t often get to find out why someone thought of you or chose you for a role, but when it’s a good role, you’re just grateful.”

Was working with respected Japanese actors, and in a demanding environment, stressful for her?

“Well, hopefully we’re all peers and professionals and we have a respect for each other, and like, I didn’t really know who some of them were and they wouldn’t know who I was, so we were just colleagues, which is great, because that goes across — that transcends — any culture. A fellow actor is a fellow actor. And maybe somebody clued the rest of the cast in on how long I’ve been working — like, I was practically full-time in my early teens, although not technically. So nobody treated me like the new kid on the block, which was a relief.”

Murphy says that the chance to work in a foreign country was an opportunity to rejuvenate.

“Sometimes, working in a movie at home, if it’s not as interesting or challenging as the last thing you did . . . you might feel, you know, like an old hand. A little jaded. But when you work somewhere like Japan, it’s all new and exciting, and your energy level is up. And if there is a little more stress, from the . . . sort of foreign-ness of it all, it’s more than offset by the excitement and how kind people are to you.”

In light of her earlier comments, does Murphy feel “The Ramen Girl” compares closely with “Lost in Translation”?

“Not all that much,” she says. “It’s made in Japan. So that’s a big similarity for a basically American movie. But it’s a different set of circumstances, and the main character is me, not an American man. And in that movie (Bill Murray’s character is) a star, and in our movie I’m not, so it’s different in terms of the plot, plus — and I really like this — it has more local actors in it. If you think about it, ‘Lost in Translation’ didn’t have very many Japanese in roles that were very significant. It’s like Tokyo was more of just a background to that movie.

“In ‘The Ramen Girl,’ Japan is more than a background, it’s . . . well, it’s part of everything in the movie, and I’m in the middle of it! It’s great!”

“The Ramen Girl” is showing now.

Telling a souper story

Robert Allan Ackerman, director of “The Ramen Girl,” is a Brooklyn-born, Emmy-nominated theater and TV director and producer who has worked extensively in Japan. Here he tells us how he got stuck into this steaming-hot project.

How did “The Ramen Girl” come about?

Through an e-mail that was sent to me by the writer, named Becca Topol. She had lived in Japan, and she sent me an e-mail saying that she had an idea for a movie about an American girl who becomes a ramen chef.

Why ramen? And how do Western audiences react to the sound of slurping, as ramen is typically eaten?

That was Becca’s idea. She’s a Buddhist, and she was trying to look for a metaphor or some situation in which an American girl was being trained to do something that was so foreign to her. And I think Americans find slurping very offensive, ha ha. They don’t understand it. (But) once they do understand it, they feel liberated, because they can slurp.

What were the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge that we had was trying to figure out how (Brittany Murphy and Toshiyuki Nishida’s characters) communicated with one another. And then we finally just decided, why don’t they just not understand each other? That’s actually the basis of their relationship.

Was it a conscious decision to cast Tsutomu Yamazaki, star of the classic ramen movie “Tampopo”?

Absolutely. “Tampopo” is one of my favorite movies. The casting of Yamazaki was really deliberate, to have the car door open and out walks the guy from “Tampopo.”

A lot of people are comparing your film with “Lost in Translation” . . .

I would rather not be compared to “Lost in Translation.” I thought that the depiction of the Japanese characters was very stereotypical and kind of racist. I also thought that it had nothing to do with Japan; they could have been on the moon, and the only reason to have Japanese people was to make fun of them.

What is your favorite style of ramen?

Oh! Pork ramen. I can’t think of the word anymore . . . (A staff member reminds him: tonkotsu.)