There are times when eating is simply about fueling up the body for whatever is to come next.
Then there are those other times…
Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a film that never forgets the sensual side of food and eating.
The movie takes its name from that of its heroine, who runs a roadside ramen stand in rural Japan. Her desire is to have the best ramen shop in the area, but unfortunately, her noodles simply aren’t all that good. Enter itinerant trucker Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe), who stop in one evening as a break from the road. After Goro stops her son from being beaten by three of his school mates then takes a beating himself while defending her from harassing local Pisken, he awakens the next morning to find that she has taken him in and cleaned and bandaged his wounds.
When it turns out that Goro knows more than a thing or two about the proper cooking of ramen, Tampopo begs him to train her so that she can become a truly great noodle chef.
Okay, I know that at this point many of you are probably thinking “ramen chef”? How much does it take to boil water and toss in some dried noodles and a pack of seasoning? But of course, we’re not talking here about the sodium-laden six-for-a-buck college student staple. Instead, we’re talking a true bowl of Japanese deliciousness, with a deeply flavored soup, handmade noodles freshly cooked, thin slices of pork that actually cook once they are placed in the soup just before eating, and slices of vegetables and other ingredients that make for a heart, healthy meal.
In other words, we’re talking about a dish that not only fulfills the body’s need for energy, but one which, if made and approached correctly, can be a delight for all the senses.
We’re also talking about a movie that celebrates that sensory and, as I said above, sensual side of food and of eating.
Back to the main plot of the film: from this point on, Tampopo plays out not unlike a parody of many a Samurai and Western movie – it was even promoted as the world’s first “ramen western” – a play on the Italian “spaghetti western” genre – with Goro not only teaching and training Tampopo to make the best bowl of noodles possible, but where his own expertise fails, recruiting others to help out. In many ways it has that classic “gather the warriors to help defend the village” feel to it. The pair also set about to learn the true tricks of the ramen masters, even at times going undercover to learn her competitors’ secrets.
But that’s just the main plot. Interspersed within that are small vignettes which bring the true sensuality of eating to the forefront. For instance, the is one subplot which involves a gangster and his lover who are all about exploring the sexual nature and possibilities of different foods in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the refrigerator scene from 9 1/2 Weeks. There’s even a scene involving a raw egg that… well, let’s just say that it may give you something different to think about the next time you’re making breakfast.
There’s also a memorable scene involving a women’s etiquette class which takes place in a restaurant and in which the teacher is attempting to instruct her young charges the proper “Western” way to eat spaghetti – without the characteristic slurping sounds that often are taken as a sign of the enjoyment of the food in Japanese culture. Her lecture, however is often interrupted by a man sitting a few tables over who is definitely enjoying his own bowl of noodles. And when it finally becomes time for the students to practice what she has been preaching, things do not go exactly as she had hoped.
One of the beauties of Itami’s work here is how seamlessly he integrates these vignettes into the larger work, making them feel not so much like intrusions in the ongoing main plot, but explicative and evocative examples of the mood and atmosphere and themes that he is exploring. He is very ably assisted in this by the camera work of cinematographer Masaki Tamura who finds the perfect way to shoot each of these scenes in a way that makes them feel individualized, but none the less part of the whole.
At the same time, Tampopo is a movie which never loses sight of the inherent silliness at its core and therefore never falls into the trap that can be the downfall of so many comedies. It never takes itself too seriously. Instead it completely embraces its parodic nature and celebrates it just as it celebrates the culinary world.
Also of note is the cast, each of whom seems perfectly chosen for their role. Yamazaki brings just the right combination of gruffness, world-weariness, and sensitivity to the role of itinerant driver/samurai, and Nobuko Miyamoto is utterly charming as the vibrant Tampopo (we’re told that her name means “Dandelion”) who transforms from somewhat dowdy and run down to become as shining and bright as her new restaurant once it. too, receives a near-complete makeover. The supporting cast, which includes many Japanese film stalwarts such as Kōji Yakusho, Yoshi Katō, Hideji Ōtaki, and Ryūtarō Ōtomo, are all perfectly cast and inhabit their roles extremely well.
All of this leads to Tampopo being a film which celebrates food and eating in all of its facets, one which emphasizes and celebrates the fact that food, both in its creation and in its eating can be so much more than just another quick stop along the way in the day, if only one takes the time to slow down and approach it properly.
It’s also a movie that will make you want to give up those little packages of “flavor” forever. Which you really should do anyway, you know.
Her’s a trailer: