Ramen: rich, salty broth, chewy noodles, jammy egg yolks. Winter, spring, summer, fall––any season, ramen is my comfort food. Though it’s often associated as being a college student’s “struggle food,” ramen has been (and still is) a dish I associate with breezy evenings at home in Providence, cold nights with friends in Saint Paul and hot summers in Tokyo. Ramen’s centrality to Tampopo (dir. Juzo Itami, 1985) is what drew me to it. Certainly, the film celebrates all things ramen, and spectacularly at that. But what makes Tampopo great, is that it celebrates humans’ deeply complicated relationship with food, and does so without ever taking itself too seriously.
The film’s main plot follows Tampopo, the titular character, as she joins forces with truck drivers Gorō and Gun, embarking on a journey to revive her struggling restaurant and perfect her ramen. Accompanying this central narrative are mini vignettes (and a subplot framing the film, which follows a young gangster and his lover’s erotic food-filled adventures) which hone in on humans’ experiences of food––experiences of pleasure, guilt, comfort and sadness. Juzo Itami’s Tampopo captures food in a way that the pristine cinematography of Chef’s Table* or Street Food* could never; food in Tampopo is not just a feast for the eyes––it’s simultaneously messy and pristine, disgusting and delicious, sensual and revolting, of great importance and of none at all.
From the absurd ceremony of consuming ramen (“First contemplate the ramen…then, with the tips of your chopsticks smooth out the surface and caress the ramen…To express affection”) to the intricacies of serving a perfect bowl, Tampopo shows its love for ramen. However, the scenes that really drew me in were the short vignettes sprinkled throughout. Each one is full of charm, and never feel misplaced.
This scene is particularly memorable for me: at a fancy Italian restaurant, a group of women sit at a long dining table, an older woman teaching them eating-etiquette for spaghetti. They listen quietly as she instructs them, carefully mimicking her actions. Spoon in the left hand, fork in the right. Three to four strands of pasta swirled around the fork, against the spoon. Across the restaurant, a white man begins to loudly slurp his pasta, much like you would ramen (slurping noodles in Japan is the norm). Despite the teacher’s attempts to reiterate the importance of silence while eating (because it is “taboo” abroad), her pupils begin to slurp away ravenously at their plates. Though food is fundamentally just nourishment, it is wound up in the cultural space in which we perceive ourselves and others.
Immediately preceding the pasta vignette is a scene with a young gangster and his lover; sex becomes a wild playground for food––whipped cream, honey and even live prawns. In a later vignette, they pass an egg yolk between their mouths until it breaks, dripping on her white dress. Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times described Tampopo as a “lubricious mix of the sensual and the satiric,” a description both ridiculous and perfectly appropriate. The lovers scenes suggest that food, like the erotic, is wound up in a paradox of simultaneous pleasure and disgust.
The many other wonderful vignettes explore similar dynamics. A mother rises from her deathbed, cooks dinner for her family one last time, then dies as soon as they begin to eat: a horrifying yet poignant show of how food acts a vector of love. A man post-dental surgery hands his half-eaten ice-cream to a little boy, who approaches him with a wooden sign (and half-eaten carrot) stringed around his neck with his mother’s warning: “He only eats natural food. Don’t give him sweets or snacks.”––a familiar tale of food’s temptation and how we try to deprive ourselves of such joys. The film ends quite appropriately: a mother breastfeeds her child as the credits roll through––a quiet meditation on how food, from the beginning, is a source of comfort.
[Tampopo is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Kanopy (for students in college), and HBO Max. It is also available to rent via iTunes and YouTube. *Chef’s Table and Street Food are both available to stream on Netflix.]