Directed by Juzo Itami
I remember the time that I spent six weeks in Mitaka, Tokyo as a college student in my junior year. I was living in the 2nd Men’s Dormitory with students from all over the world. On one of the first nights there, the entire dorm went to a ramen restaurant named Gutara (which to this day I am convinced is a Japanese approximation of the phrase ‘good ramen’). It was a small, out of the way ramen shop that was so small that several of us had to wait outside for tables to open up. I had never had real ramen before. When they placed that giant bowl of boiling noodles in front of my face, I knew that it was the start of a beautiful relationship. It wasn’t long until my brow was covered in sweat from me leaning over the steaming broth. With a deft motion of my hand I wiped my sweaty eyes and runny nose and shoved another load of noodles into my mouth. The combination of fresh noodles, nori (Japanese seaweed), onion, and generous portions of beef (I suspect it was because I was a foreigner) produced one of the greatest kaleidoscopes of flavors that I have ever encountered. When the noodles were gone I still had a bowl full of broth. But before I could finish it the waiter came by and dumped another serving of noodles into my bowl. Even though the beef, noodles, and seaweed were gone, the noodles themselves were succulent and delicious. I slurped down the broth and stared sadly into the bottom of my empty bowl. I would come back to this beloved ramen shop time and time again to bask in the glory of the perfect bowl of ramen noodles.
Of course, I am not alone in my adoration in the Japanese noodle. The Japanese people are proud and devoted to their own cultural cuisine. I remember talking to a Japanese foreign exchange student back home in the States who said that the thing that she missed most from home was the food. Japanese food holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all Japanese. Even simple everyday dishes like tempura, bento (box lunches), and ramen noodles are revered by those who eat them. So perhaps it is inevitable that a film such as Tampopo would eventually be made. Directed by Juzo Itami, who many consider to be Akira Kurosawa’s successor, Tampopo is as much a love letter to Japanese cuisine and culinary culture as it is one of the freshest and most original comedies of the Eighties.
Billing itself as the first noodle western (an obvious send-up to spaghetti westerns), the story centers around two truckers: Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (played by a very young Ken Watanabe). They roll into town on their big rig one rainy night looking for something to eat. Dressed in clothes right out of a John Ford western, the scene is reminiscent of cowboys rolling into town after a long haul and going straight to the local saloon. They stop at a ramen shop owned by Miss Tampopo, which in Japanese translates to “dandelion.” They immediately realize that their food will be subpar when they see that the pot used to cook the noodles isn’t boiling. Despite their occupation, they are obviously experts in the world of ramen. But they don’t have long to eat their noodles. They are attacked by a group of local ruffians who they quickly fight off. Realizing that such occurrences are frequent in Miss Tampopo’s shop, the rest of the movie concerns their efforts to help the damsel-in-distress. But they don’t fight against a legion of black-hat cowpokes. No, they fight to help Tampopo overcome her own incompetence as a ramen cook and her local competition.
They instruct her in every facet of ramen preparation. They practice how to greet the customer, how to remember their order, how to quickly prepare multiple dishes at once, and how to instill dignity and skill into her cooking. Along the way they will spy on their competition, stealing their recipes and observing how they interact with their customers. They even enlist the aid of a homeless old man referred to as “the master” who heads up a motley crew of good natured hobos who somehow manage to prepare four star cuisine from what they can find in the garbage cans behind restaurants. Together they help her open a new ramen shop, appropriately titled “Tampopo”, where they but her noodles to the ultimate test. In a scene that recalls the most intense of showdowns from the old West, they file into her shop to try her noodles. If they drink the broth after they finish, then she will know that she has truly succeeded in becoming a master ramen cook…
Perhaps realizing that he could only draw out the Tampopo storyline for so long, Itami intercuts the main plot with short vignettes involving an eclectic cast of characters. The most prominent are a white-suited yakuza and his girlfriend who engage in something that I can only describe as “food-play.” They reappear throughout the movie trying out different exotic foods (and foreplay) until he is eventually gunned down. As he lies on the street dying, he tells his girlfriend that his only regret is not letting her try wild boar sausages made from intestines stuffed with yams. Indeed, their relationship started when he found her collecting oysters on the beach. When he sucked the oyster out of her hand, they knew that they were destined for each other. So it is only appropriate that their relationship which began with food would end with it.
But there are other storylines scattered throughout to keep the audience’s attention. One involves a shop clerk trying to stop an old lady from squeezing all of his food. Another involves a noodle eating class for ladies where they are instructed on how to eat spaghetti without making any noise so as not to disturb foreigners. These may sound pointless, but they speak on an almost unconscious level about how important food is to Japanese society. The most moving subplot involves a family where the mother has died. They gather at a wake at their house where she miraculously raises from the dead and prepares her family one last meal before laying back down again to die. The husband and children, initially shocked and overjoyed at her temporary revival, choke back tears as they eat the last meal that she would ever make for them. “Eat it now while it’s still hot,” the father orders as he shoves his mouth full of the last rice that his beloved would ever make. To many this would seem nonsensical. But it is strangely touching.
What does that scene say about Japanese culinary identity? In fact, what does this entire movie have to say about how the Japanese view their cuisine? It’s difficult to say. What is clear is that it is an ode to what the Japanese eat. Take one of the first scenes where an old man teaches a young man how to properly eat a bowl of noodles. He goes about it slowly and deliberately, first smelling it, then admiring it, then carefully eating it. He tells him to apologize to the pork before they eat it. The scene tells us that to some, even the simple act of eating is an art. If that is true, and cooking and eating is not just an art, but a realization of one’s cultural identity, then Tampopo is not just a love letter to Japanese food. It is a sacred devotion to that which sustains us from the day we are born to the day that we die.