The taste of humanity: Tampopo

At the core of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) is the ambition of the central character, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), to produce in her small ramen noodle shop the best ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a broth) in Tokyo. Truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and four other men help the widow to turn her business around. This group of saviours, and the way Goro unites them, is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

Itami makes repeated references to film history and a variety of genres, including yakuza films and Westerns. Goro wears a cowboy hat, the iconic accessory of the Western, even while taking a bath; the white suit worn by the yakuza (Koji Yakusho) recalls Matsunaga’s outfit in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948), which had quickly become fashionable in the yakuza milieu at that time. However, just as the ramen served by the heroine is an elaborate dish, the film is by no means a simple pastiche. More than simply a postmodern accumulation of a variety of ingredients, Tampopo is a rich and multi-layered social satire.

The film is an ode to food that highlights the importance of quality and respect for what we eat. At the same time, it ironically targets the Japanese obsession with food, already omnipresent in daily television shows in the 1980s. The quest for the best ramen recipe is interwoven with several vignettes which are only loosely (or are not at all) connected with the main plot – a device which destroys linearity and challenges narrative conventions.

The shift to the subplots is sometimes abrupt, and sometimes connections are established visually within the same frame, but the camera movements are always elegant and efficient. Near a modern building, a group of businessmen passes Tampopo and Goro without taking any notice of the cook and her new friend. The camera follows the men to an expensive French restaurant inside the building, where they then struggle with the menu, which is in French. Only the youngest of them understands French, and he also turns out to be a connoisseur of French food. The way he demonstrates his knowledge is used as a subtle means to test the strict hierarchy both inside the company they work for and in Japanese society as a whole.

A long travelling shot reveals another part of the restaurant, where a middle-aged woman is trying to teach a group of younger women to eat noodles the European way: without making any noise. Her efforts are in vain because a European customer sitting close by is slurping his noodle dish noisily, imitating Japanese manners. The women, including their teacher, abandon their attempt to imitate what they consider European refinement and gulp their Italian noodles in an exaggerated manner, revealing once again the film’s propensity for parody.

The only character to appear in several of the vignettes is the young yakuza. When he is shot dead, a direct link with the main story is established at the auditory level, as the shots are heard in the noodle shop and one of Tampopo’s helpers goes outside to see what has happened. It is also the yakuza in the white suit who, in the opening scene in a cinema, addresses the viewer directly, breaking the fourth wall. From the very beginning, the film challenges realist conventions and destroys illusion.

The film’s self-reflexive narrative is not only reminiscent of the Western as a film genre but also generates reflections on Japanese and Western culture. The term “noodle Western,” applied to Itami’s film, and the references to Japanese and Western film history – including American Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns and films by Kurosawa – remind the viewer in a playful manner that since the silent era Japanese cinema has been influenced mainly by Hollywood films. The Hollywood Western was remodeled as the Spaghetti Western, but the first of these, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), relies extensively on Yojimbo (1961), directed by Kurosawa, who was himself inspired by Hollywood Westerns. The films are not the only hybrid cultural products which transcend national categories; Ramen was brought to Japan in the nineteenth-century and became popular in the post-war era. Both cinema and ramen became part of a successful urban culture after first being disregarded as mere entertainment or as a cheap meal.

Part of the complexity is a reflection on gender issues, and these remain ambiguous, for Tampopo needs the five men to achieve her goal. Furthermore, one of the male characters is surprised that a woman is able to create such excellent ramen. The remark he makes hints at the gender imbalance in Japan at that time, an aspect which is challenged by the strong and witty heroine. Tampopo, who has a purpose in life (her restaurant, her young son, for whose sake she struggles for business success), is contrasted with the men, who are lone drifters, handicapped by old age or illness (the elderly man whose cook helps Tampopo), or killed (the yakuza).

The portrayal of society in the film is as rich as the broth which forms the basis of the soup. Itami depicts a world of figures on the margins of society, such as the group of homeless men, the poor family with the dying mother, or the old woman in the supermarket who is obsessed with squeezing food. There is no explanation of her behaviour, and Itami does not judge it. The sequence reveals a feeling of absurdity which also imbues the film as a whole and is revealed at other moments in which food is linked with sexuality and death – the woman who leaves her sickbed on her desperate husband’s callous order to prepare a meal for her family and then dies once her task is finished; the yakuza who uses food in sex games and reflects on the last moments in life in front of a table overflowing with meat (he dies while recalling a secret recipe for making sausages).

However, Itami’s satirical approach does not lose sight of the human being. Unlike the businessmen, Itami’s homeless are all connoisseurs of fine food and French wine. Although this topsy-turvy world matches perfectly the sense of absurdity, the contrast between the homeless men’s language and the poverty indicated by their physical appearance suggests their decline in a wealthy society ruled by violent competition. Itami celebrates these people living joyfully in the margins of society and showing respect for each other. The closing credits are projected over the image of a woman breast-feeding her baby, and this ultimate image which connects food with the cycle of life and death is, not unlike the name Tampopo (“dandelion”), a reference to spring, rebirth, and the future.

About the author

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Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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