To attempt to understand the spirit of Tampopo, directed by Jûzô Itami, is to understand the spirit of food. In a movie with a sprawling, free-flowing structure, the heart of the movie, and the heart of the lives that we briefly see in the film, is located in their relationship with food. The main storyline revolves around a weathered trucker, Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who is persuaded by the eponymous widowed ramen-ya owner, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), to help her transform her lackluster ramen recipe and business. Accompanied by his sidekick Gun (pre-Hollywood Ken Watanabe), they venture for the perfect ramen recipe. Between scenes in this main storyline, the film very casually segues into various food-themed scenes that are narratively unrelated to this main quest. But once I knew what to expect, the miscellaneous stories being shown played an important role in understanding the world that Tampopo takes place in. This is a world where the experience of food (I say experience, because often it does not only involve eating), be it the symbolic form or in a more sensually corporeal way, is able to subvert occupation, social class, and even death.
One of these side stories is the “How to Eat Ramen” scene that opens the movie:
In this hypnotic scene, the young man, clueless about the proper way of eating a bowl of ramen, closely follows the expert’s instructions. His instructions are either abstract or seemingly absurd: “appreciate its gestalt” or “apologize to the pork by saying…see you soon.” But at one point, the scene presents a lucidity about the nonsensical instructions — that tapping the pork at the side of the bowl is merely to drain it of the broth, which the expert states with a satisfied smile on his face.
Like the side story, there seem to be set rules about food in the scenes that might seem created to operate as dramatic devices in these comedic scenes. Among many examples are the act of finishing the broth to signify the ramen’s quality. Another is the scene where a group of young women, in what seems to be a women’s etiquette class, are being taught the ‘right’ way to eat pasta, only for the instructions to be drowned and replaced with a western man’s loud and indulgent slurping from across the room. The existence of these rules is what elevates this movie from funny to heartily hilarious. The characters in each scene take these rules very seriously, without a sign of irony. It is satirical, but sincere. It takes the various tropes that it parodies and, through the characters’ sincerity towards food and the journey for the perfect ramen, leaves you not only in tears from laughter but also with a unique sense of warmth that wholesome filmmaking brings. This film will leave you satisfied, warm and makes you miss it the moment it’s gone. Just like a good bowl of ramen.
dir. Jûzô Itami
Screens Monday, 04/10, 7:00PM @Coolidge Corner Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: Big Screen Classics