Overview: A trucker and his wild connections dedicate their time to helping a woman create the perfect bowl of ramen. Toho; 1985; Not Rated; 114 minutes.
Open Wide: Hailed as a ramen western, Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo charmed North American viewers with its veritable smorgasbord of genres and its lighthearted charm after Roger Ebert praised it in 1987. Recently The Criterion Collection and Janus Films put out a restored print so the film could be enjoyed once again in theatres after several decades. Tampopo tells the story of, well, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) a young widow who struggles to create the quality of food she knows she has within her. When Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a Clint Eastwood-type trucker and his sidekick Gun stumble upon her humble roadside ramen shop they recognize her potential, but her food leaves something to be desired. When they’re honest with their feedback, Tampopo begs to be Gorô’s disciple and so they begin their journey together, cut with vignettes that peer into the different ways food affects us. More than anything, this is a movie about pleasure, especially that of the body. Everyone in the film has an open and obvious enjoyment of food; their consumption is messy and loud and copious, enjoyed with as much pleasure as you get from just watching. For someone who spends a significant amount of time thinking about, preparing, and eating food, Tampopo is a dream. As a paean to humanity’s relationship with food, it can be categorized into three glimpses at the way it melds into our lives.
Food as Sex: As long as we can remember, food has always had a close relationship with sex. This makes sense as the two go hand in hand when talking about simple pleasures, and our engagement with both has similar effects on the brain. Though such discussions are still had only in quiet conversation, today we’ve embraced a misnomer in the term “food porn”, where people (mostly women) receive intense and valid enjoyment just by gazing at tantalizing dishes. Tampopo is, in some ways, food porn. A recurrent vignette features food and sex mixed literally with a breast dipped in cream and into a lover’s mouth, or a golden yolk passed breathlessly between open quivering lips. Other moments the glistening bowls of ramen are on display, fresh ingredients chopped and filmed with such thought I swear you can smell them through the whole film. Portions are generous and patrons eat with abandon, slurping noodles and filling their cheeks with the delicacies. The results are positively salivating. While explicit sexual moments are few and far between, their efficacy is never diluted or lost even when they choose to be modest, as Gorô and Tampopo come to blushing halts when viewing each other’s unmentionables when changing after a storm.
Food as Art: Beyond being part of a sexual experience, at its best, food appeals to every sense and can even move the artist. Ramen is a precise dish. There’s a precise way to make it and a precise way to eat it. This is introduced early in the film as a master trains his young apprentice to caress the ramen, whisper tenderly to the pork and contemplate the bowl. A good chef knows that food is art, and a good foodie knows ramen is of its highest form. The secret’s in the broth, and it’s guarded heavily by those who have mastered it. Arranged within its salty richness are smooth, hand spun noodles and a myriad of meats, vegetables and toppings to the customer’s liking or the regional recipe. Tampopo knows she has it within her to create the perfect bowl, and she has the determination to reach for it. Her graceful humility allows her to accept – and even beg for – help from a charming array of characters who appear, from the Rich Old Man who gorges himself on restricted foods to the endearing Noodle Professor who leads a following of ragamuffin devotees. This kind of dedication to the craft is something that’s less appreciated in the west, and watching the deliberate and non-compromising commitment to artistry is strangely relaxing. The art exists outside of the kitchen as well. When Gorô first enters the ramen shop, he does so like a gunslinger walking into a saloon. Heads whip to the side, and broth is sipped slowly before acquiescing to “take it outside” when a loudmouth regular starts a fight. Every genre it pulls from, every scene, holds so much whimsy and lightheartedness that it’s hard not to smile until your face hurts.
Food as Comfort: Besides being necessary for survival, food has become an easy comfort for almost any symptom. This goes beyond the emotional tendency to eat chocolate when depressed or ice cream when needing to cool down. Few meals are as comforting as a hot bowl of ramen on a bleak and rainy day. Food has always been a source of community, especially in times of grief. Funerals are piled high with egg salad sandwiches and casseroles packed in the freezer for a reason. Tampopo explores this theme in a vignette of a woman on her deathbed. Her husband begs her not to die, demanding that she get in the kitchen and cook dinner. Not to be confused as a misogynistic move, it appears the woman regains some sense of life and release, raising from her deathbed to create one last meal for her family. They sit around eating gratefully with saucers for eyes, taking great comfort in the humble last meal. Every act of eating in the movie comes across as either a genuine experience of comfort for unspoken ails or a celebration of life, whether it’s a group of young women embracing the spaghetti slurp or the fried rice omelette enjoyed during a break and enter. Tampopo finishes with a lingering scene of a baby being fed at its mother’s breast: our first connection through our first meal, a symbolic relationship with food that is complex and beautiful and lasts our entire lives.
Full Up: Comedy is absolutely necessary in these dark times, and Tampopo is genuinely hilarious with lots of laughter and smiles to be had. Miyamoto as the movie’s namesake is pure light with a beaming smile, radiant in her quiet determination and eagerness to please. It’s no wonder she was her husband’s muse, starring in most of his films. Besides one shot vignettes, Tampopo is the only female character in the movie. She is surrounded by men and aims explicitly for their acceptance in her work. This feels awkward at times, especially a scene in which the men discuss her appearance and plan a makeover while she listens around the corner, embarrassed. But just when Tampopo starts to feel like a schlocky romance with hearts won over by pork broth, it turns on its heels and makes a satisfying recovery as Tampopo delivers gratitude to Gorô for her ultimate triumph, “You helped me find my ladder!” Though surrounded by men and held to their expectations, in the end, Tampopo approaches her quest not to satisfy them but herself – and achieve her wildest dreams at the same time.
Overall: Tampopo is mandatory viewing for people with a love of film and food. Considered as the formal introduction of ramen to North America, it deserves high praise for that alone. Just as a bowl of ramen lifts the spirits on a cold, wet day, this film teases out smiles and adoration from the first scene to the last, a strong prescription for these trying times.
Featured Image: Toho