From sushi to okonomiyaki, from tempura to Yakiniku. Melon pan, omurice, udon, yakitori, curry, croquettes, tonkatsu and of course ramen. Japan and food, two signifiers that quite often have a synonymous ring. Food is important in Japan and, one might even say, Japan is important in food – as its cuisine is very popular internationally.
With his Noodle Western – this classification might already make you hungry – loosely based on the plot of Rio Bravo (1959) and one of its main characters modeled on John Wayne, Itami Juzo (1933–1997), who died rather dubiously, provides an insight into this peculiar food culture of Japan. So without further ado, let’s delve into the narrative to see if Tampopo is a narrative to savour or if it will leave us with a terrible empty stomach.
The narrative of Tampopo starts on a rainy night when truckers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) stop by a small ramen restaurant run by Tampopo (Miyamoto Nobuko). They are served a lousy bowl of ramen and, on top of that, Goro gets into a fight with Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka) and his mates. The day after the fight, a conversation at the breakfast table leads to Tampopo asking Goro to help her create the perfect bowl of ramen. To fulfill his promise, Goro asks the help of a tramp, a chauffeur and, in the end, also of Pisuken.
Tampopo’s quest for the perfect ramen and the reanimation of her ailing noodle restaurant forms the narrative frame, interweaving the various often short vignettes together. There is a coming and going of characters from various layers of Japanese society, often evoked by the trains in the narrative space, which quickly unearths the central thematic axis of the narrative: the relation of the subject to food, his relation to the oral drive and the (sometimes obsessive) pleasure he derives thereof. With subtlety, by letting characters seemingly speak to us, Tampopo also implies and puts into question our own relation to food and enjoyment (cine-note 1). Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that food and sexuality intermingle, most notable in the narrative concerning the gangster (Kôji Yakusho) and his lover (Fukumi Kuroda). Besides showing the inherent sexuality of food itself – e.g. the peach as resembling the female sexual organ, both are revealed as going beyond the mere aspect of needs, as bathing in the realm of enjoyment instead. But, as much as Tampopo is an ode the enjoyment food provides – from the moment where are born right up until the moment we die – it is also, simultaneously, a parody of that enjoyment and of contemporary Japan and its food culture.
The societal commentary the Tampopo provides is most notable in the subversions the narrative contains, reversals that, by going against expectations, expose the hypocrisies that keep the imaginary surface of ‘ritual’ interactions, as conditioned by Japanese culture, level. In the classy French restaurant for example where all the older businessmen order the same thing, the youngest one subverts social expectations by ordering different things. Furthermore, by exposing his knowledge of French cuisine, he reveals the very attractive lure of the fancy as well as underlining the enjoyment of dining as such (narra-note 2).
Tampopo is characterized by a remarkable easiness by which the narrative, as noodle western, integrates glances to different genres, producing a sort of kaleidoscope for the spectator to enjoy. The narrative freely flows from instructional documentary to slapstick, from romantic melodrama to yakuza movie, from spy narrative to road-movie. This free-flowing movement on the level of the narrative is translated in the cinematography as such. The camera, taking the spectator along, often meanders in the narrative space, pausing for certain narratives before it lets itself drift off again.
The cinematography is characterized by a careful approach to colour, the darker colours, by contrast, underlining the deepness of the reds in the narrative space. Furthermore, by this approach and the beautifully framing, food receives its visually appealing character (cine-note 2). But the most radical feature of the Tampopo‘s cinematography is that it shows its consciousness as a movie as such. Itami, by adding quirky transitions, funny sound effects, and often too dramatic music, presents the movie consciously as a movie, revealing, in the same way, its satirical nature (cine-note 3).
Even after all those years, Tampopo remains a fresh and engaging narrative – revealing no expire date. The funniness of Tampopo’s satire sometimes depends on how much one knows about the inner workings of Japanese society, but even for people who’re not that knowledgeable Tampopo provides plenty of laughs. As Tampopo shows that life, in all its aspects, turns around food and the enjoyment it provides, it also unearths, in a very heart-warming way, that what brings people together is food. And to respond to the question the introduction ended with: Yes, Tampopo is a narrative to savour. And if you didn’t eat properly before, it’ll make you hungry at the very same time.
Narra-note 1: The title Tampopo means dandelion.
Narra-note 2: There are two other examples where it is apparent that the ode to food is also marked by a parody of food-culture as such. In the first instance, a dying woman gets up to make one final meal for her family. Besides satirizing the image of the ideal woman as self-sacrificing, it also shows (visually) the pleasure a mother/wife receives from the act of making food for her family. The second instance is the instructional sequence of the ceremonial art of eating ramen, which reveals the art of enjoyment of eating as such as much as it satirizes the extremes this art may attain.
Cine-note 1: The first instance is when a character in the cinema speaks directly to the spectator. His utterance “So you’re also in the cinema? What are you eating?” reveals the spectator as a spectator as such – and the movie as fictional narrative – and underlines the central axis of the narrative. A second instance is when we share the same perspective as Tampopo and her son in relation to the hobo foodies.
Cine-note 2: Other remarkable aspects of the cinematography are the composition of characters within the frame, the use of close-ups, and the fluent camera prone to horizontal and vertical movement.
Cine-note 3: We should add that the sound design is successful to evoke the sounds related to eating.