Nick Davie: For our Living Room Chats this month, we discuss Juzo Itami‘s 1985 classic Tampopo. The wonderfully crafted food-based epic Tampopo champions the craft of cooking and aims to tear down establishment bias towards the amateur chef. Itami cleverly comments on establishment snobbery in Japanese culture whilst parodying the Western genre to create the first Japanese Noodle western. The film follows the widow Tampopo struggling to appease customers at her local fast food restaurant with her inadequate cooking until two truck drivers decide to stick around and help her learn the ways of ramen cooking. The lead truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) takes Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) under his wing in this endearing championing of the amateur, teaching her the methods and techniques to improving her skill set. A strangely unique film, Tampopo is best watched on an empty stomach; in my opinion, this can result in the desire for a sumptuous feast of ramen and such afterwards. Discussing this with my colleague Eugene Kang, I would love to hear about your experience with Tampopo and other ‘food porn’ cinema.
Eugene Kang: Even if you were to go in with a full stomach to watch this film, there is no way that you would not crave at least one of the dishes that are seen onscreen. The plot of the men helping Tampopo with her ramen is actually about half of the movie whereas the rest is designated to mostly unrelated vignettes that center around food. It is in these vignettes that Itami treats us to a visual smorgasbord, from ramen to fine seafood to a simple ice cream cone. While I think a lot of ‘food porn’ focuses on the visual appeal of food and the vicarious enjoyment we get of seeing someone eat it, I think the genius of Tampopo is that Itami explores the culture around food and the rituals we have created in order to prepare it and eat it. One of the first scenes is between Gun (Ken Watanabe) and a ramen master (Ryutaro Otomo). The ramen master is a master not because he knows how to make the best ramen, but because he ‘knows’ how to eat ramen in the best way. You must put the pork to the right, you must stroke the naruto three times, etc. Itami and Otomo make it clear through dialogue and performance that it is absurd that anyone things there is a right way to eat ramen, but the ramen master takes is so seriously that Gun has to respect the master’s dedication. Not only is this a funny scene, but it is a clever way to introduce ramen as a dish that deserves respect in its preparation and consumption. Also the idea that ritual and tradition are just as important to the enjoyment of food, no matter how ridiculous your rituals are, will be a running theme throughout the film.
What do you make of the different rituals that you saw around the preparation and consumption of food in Tampopo? Do you have a particular vignette that you really enjoyed?
Nick: That is an amazing and, I think, vital point Eugene, the ritual of the creation is what Itami focuses on in Tampopo. The act of crafting something tangible and consumable and something that has a soulful, artistic value to the craftsman. The vignettes further the notion that eating is as much a ritual as the creation, and we see Tampopo observing other chefs and customers. What I took most from the film’s ritualistic tendencies is the elevation of the perceived amateur and how Tampopo adopts these rituals, learns them, adapts them, and becomes her own artisan.
A particular scene that is commonly pointed out is the yolk exchange; this bizarrely sensual scene between two people is unique in that I don’t think I have seen anything quite like it. It is subtly funny and so strange, it is hard to look away! What particular vignette is the most striking for you?
Another critical aspect of the film is the relationship between protagonists. Goro’s relationship with Tampopo is intriguingly complex; he answers questions with questions when asked why he feels he must aid her. What is your interpretation of why Goro helped Tampopo, Eugene?
Eugene: I have to applaud Itami for the scenes with Koji Yakusho and Fukomi Kuroda for acknowledging that fetishes around food exist. I think of their erotically charged relationship as kind of a natural extension of the fetishization that happens to food constantly throughout Tampopo. They enjoy food so much that it becomes much more a part of their existence than it is for most people. Also, their relationship sort of compensates for the surprising lack of one between Goro and Tampopo. Tampopo was advertised as a ‘ramen western’ and it does follow the plot of a Western to some extent. The gathering of colorful talent and the staking out of the competition is reminiscent of something like Seven Samurai, itself influenced by and an influencer of Westerns. To some extent, I think Goro fits into the archetype of the world-weary mentor looking for someone to pass on his knowledge to.
I’m glad you brought up the idea of the amateur, because I think that Tampopo might be one of the best films to truly describe what it means to be an amateur. ‘Amateur’ is often synonymous with a lack of quality and polish, but in Tampopo, amateur receives the proper description of one who loves something enough that they would still do it even if they weren’t paid. I am thinking especially of the homeless gourmands that Goro and Tampopo seek out to help out with her ramen shop. Seeing these men speak so eloquently about fine food and wine that they have taken from people who presumably didn’t value these things enough to fully consume them is not only a great subversion of expectations but also a nicely democratic portrayal of amateurship.
Love for something isn’t restricted by class or economic privilege and in fact, a couple of the vignettes criticize directly how fine cuisine can be used as a gatekeeping mechanism to prop up a ridiculous sense of snobbery and pretension. My favorite one is the scene where a young company lackey shows up all his bosses with his extensive knowledge of French cuisine. It manages to criticize both bureaucracy and Confucian-influenced hierarchy as the narrow-minded oppressive behaviors that they are in a fun and irreverent way. Also in the same restaurant, a woman is teaching a class of upper-class ladies how to eat the European way, specifically that one must be as quiet as possible when consuming a potentially noisy food like pasta. When a White man starts noisily slurping his pasta however, the class devolves into slurping chaos until even the teacher gives in and slurps with gusto. It provides a neat counterpoint to the previous vignette in which knowledge of European culture was seen as a strength whereas in this story, it is meant to instill a false sense of superiority.
What did you think of Tampopo’s journey towards excellence? How do you think her narrative of self-improvement differs from other similar narratives and do you find her story inspiring as I do, even if it’s not necessarily a recognizable, common story?
Nick: The Koji Yakusho and Fukomi Kuroda scene is the perfect balance of comedy and commentary on the fetishization of food. Itami, like the chef, blends genres and styles to comment on food’s history of erotic imagery, whilst also making several statements regarding the chef and the consumer’s relationship with food in a more traditional sense.
The comparison of Goro to those world-weary heroes of the westerns or the ronin samurai is accurate; he carries himself as if emotionally wounded or stunted and in need of redemption, which he finds in abundance through mentoring Tampopo. The lack of a relationship between Goro and Tampopo, as you describe it, is another string to Itami’s bow. The director creates intrigue through their ambiguous relationship without ever spoon-feeding the audience allows us to make our conclusions about why Goro truly helps Tampopo, if not for the sake of his good nature.
There are many aspects of Tampopo I would consider somewhat wholesome and deeply satisfying. Still, mostly, for me, the interpretation of the ‘amateur’ and Tampopo’s journey is a perfect metaphor for this makes the film so successful. The experiences of being criticized to her face and then improving gradually, through watching other chefs, eating their food, seeing their customers, really enables Tampopo to flourish. Through self-discipline and self-worth, she grows under Goro’s tuition; what makes Tampopo a unique film in the sense of this master-student system Itami employs is how deeply passionate about their subject the protagonists are without any personal intimacy between them. Though ambiguous, on the surface, the platonic relationship harmonizes the film’s balance perfectly. A great film about the food experience and food’s humanizing qualities that is somewhat comparable would be Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci‘s Big Night (1996). In Big Night, two brothers are forced to work together to impress locals in an evening they host. In terms of plot, this film is entirely different; I enjoy the idea of self-discovery through learning to cook, be it professionally or as an amateur who has a passion for food.
You rightly mention Tampopo‘s subtle and poignant commentary on class. Do you have any comparable films you would recommend, Eugene? The Noodle Western idea is particularly unique; have you ever stumbled across any other food-specific genres?
Eugene: I really have to give a lot of credit to Nobuko Miyamoto for making Tampopo’s journey of self-improvement so appealing. She manages to make Tampopo pure-hearted and loveable without being saccharine. Even though there is a substantial financial motive for letting all these men help her with her ramen restaurant, it never seems to be exclusively about the money for her. Instead, she wants to improve for the sake of self-improvement. While she is certainly inspired by the men in her life, we also slowly see her capabilities come out. I love the scene where Goro takes her to the busy ramen restaurant near the subway and asks her to keep track of the many orders that are filing in. When she manages to rattle off the orders with no effort, we get a hint of how capable she really is and that she is not simply some damsel in distress waiting passively to receive help from more capable men. We also see her be wily when she tricks a ramen chef to revealing secrets about how he prepared his noodles. For a character who is not ostensibly funny, Miyamoto’s inherent playfulness really comes through and makes her really fun to watch in what easily could have been a thankless role.
Miyamoto would be the muse for many of Itami’s works before his unfortunate murder in 1997. I would highly recommend Supermarket Woman, in which she actually takes on the Goro role in helping improve her friend’s local market to compete agains the big, corporate supermarket that has recently opened nearby. It has many of the same beats as Tampopo, but it’s even more about community. Also, Miyamoto plays an enthusiastic character that makes you excited by her incredible competence, which is quite different from the somewhat gruff Goro. As for films that really emphasize the beauty of food and the community that it can create, I have to recommend Babette’s Feast, whose sumptuous climatic meal remains unvrivaled in cinema.