Tampopo ★★★★★

”Wholesome” is what most of the reviews of Tampopo seem to land on, which is strange, because this film is still so much to stomach. In terms of structure and style, Tampopo remains quite complex with its numerous vignettes, the absurdism, and the underlying eroticism permeating every scene down to the dentist’s nurses flashing their armpits. But it is still so accessible and entertaining. And it is very wholesome. Why?

Food is something everyone can relate to. It is not a ”high concept”. The ending of the film reduces the idea of food back to its essence – a biological necessity. Everyone has to eat, so food is an effective language to comment on themes which are relevant to the mass audiences. Being charged with attributes of class and taste, it is a very effective, textured, and nuanced tool to satirize the lifestyles of those in power, and create universally understandable scenarios.

Juzo Itami’s film is an utopia of gourmandry, a domain where everyone can join and participate. It is representative of the entry of restaurant dining into the popular mass culture, and out of the banquet halls. The way ramen spread in the post-war years is a little bit like the appearance of snägäri in Finland. Where it ended up coming to the decade that the film depicts is something like the epidemic of gourmet burgers in Helsinki today. Ramen had a semantic shift from an inexpensive working-class 'fodder' into a food scene, eagerly followed both by ramen otakus and gourmet media outlets, which was, by itself, a new phenomenon, signifying the popularization and mediatization of food culture.

The opening scene of the film, with the late Ryūtarō Ōtomo playing the ramen master, while young Ken Watanabe observes, obviously laughs at this fetishizing attitude towards a simple bowl of soup. But it also juxtaposes Confucian ethics and rites with the rules of eating, 'tabekata', that is just one of the 'katas' that the Japanese so love to write numerous guides about. It is also advisable to keep in mind the Chinese origins of ramen. The ramen master wears traditional Japanese clothes and has studied ramen for 40 years, but the dish is definitely Chinese!

The mildly colonial aspect of this film is very rarely talked about, because the restaurants that are coded as Chinese chuka soba joints probably go unnoticed by Western audiences. However, there is always this slight notion of dirtiness and cheapness associated with them, and the Japanese actors even mimic Chinese speech while twisting their faces. The transformation from the dirty and dusty Lai Lai into Tampopo Ramen, and the way Tampopo trades her apron for a French chef's set is symbolic both of the cultural claiming of ramen into a Japanese national dish, and the transformation of ramen culture from a working-class scene into a foodie phenomenon.

Finns are so woke that nobody laughed at the hobo scene, and it is one of the weakest point of the film to me as well. On one hand, it is an inclusive portrayal, which supports the message of participation that I expressed earlier – the utopistic idea, that in this day and age, everyone can be a food enthusiast and live an appetizing life, no matter what economic resources they possess. As demonstrated in the final gag, a simple dish like omuraisu is inexpensive, but it can still be very technical. This aspect of inclusivity is also emphasised by main hobo's crucial role in Tampopo’s quest for the perfect recipe, and his ‘graduation’ from the tribe of homeless, as they bid him farewell by singing Aogeba Totoshi, a song typically sung at graduation ceremonies. On the other hand, the scene still ends up depicting a marginalised group in Japanese society in a very essentialised way for the sake of comedy. Japan of the 1980s was very rich due to the record economic growth, but this heightened sense of social uniformity made outcasts like this stand out even more, and their active participation like this is a fantasy.

There is a lot of other outcasts in the film, and particularly the old lady terrorizing the department store, and the man with a toothache are manifestations of the downside of the economic miracle, symptoms of a society that is getting unwell under all the carnival of consumption. There is also almost no 'normal' family in the film, and there is almost no 'normal' relationship to food in the film. The white-clad gangster and his mistress are the most radical depiction of this, a childless couple that engage in a life of hedonism taken to the extreme, which always seems to exist somewhere outside society altogether. While Tampopo is mostly feel-good, throughout the film Itami has sharpened his nails, and finally he strikes with with the mother's death scene. It is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the Tampopo, while one of the trains, that have been going around the city like snakes throughout the film, finally crashes into the spectator's consciousness.

The juxtaposition of Japan with the West is probably the most accessible aspect of this film, so I won't say too much about that. Tampopo presents an image of contemporary Japan that is in constant interaction with the global foodways, actively reinventing and borrowing from other cuisines. There is around 40 foods in the film, some of them being Japanese, some Chinese, Korean, and some French/European. As I see it, ramen in this film is used to elevate Japanese cuisine against Chinese on one hand, and act as an antithesis to the Western, more ‘sophisticated’ dining on the other. In the 1980s, the rapid increase of the presence of foreigners in Japan introduced a new theme in Japanese film: an encounter with the ethnic other. But is really it a one-sided exchange?

The scene with the spaghetti slurping is funny, but whereas it is easy to interpret it as the upper middle class's dull willingness to just parrot Western habits, there are actually two gazes in the scene. The gaze of a foreigner is able to override the authority of a Japanese etiquette coach, but HE, in return, has learned and adapted the Japanese way to eat! This guy is exactly how I can imagine that the some retired professors of Japanese studies might have acted in Japan in their youth – a smug Japan buff, observing the Japanese society, reflecting on it, and adapting what suits them. After all, in the 1980s, Japan’s cultural power was significant, and its interaction with the West was no longer an imitation game, but first and foremost, an exchange of ideas, values, and products.

Tampopo is a joyous film, with lovable characters and great food scenes, so you can enjoy it just as it is without any of this context. I just felt like I should dump some of my thoughts somewhere, but it is not really that fun to analyze everything. Personally, I could watch Itami's films just for his signature gimmick of all the characters staring into the camera from an upside-down perspective, because it is so addictive! The actors are also a high point. Tampopo and her son are the director's own family, but the rest of the cast is all-stars of Japanese cinema – some of them only beginning their careers, like Ken Watanabe or Kōji Yakusho, some already worn-down veterans, like Ryūtarō Ōtomo, who jumped off a building right after his scenes were done.

To wrap it up on a personal note, I first watched Tampopo some 10 years ago, when I was not yet a chef, and it has been interesting to grow with this film and return to it in different times of my life. Giving the opening speech in Cinema Orion was a personal career highlight, but watching this with a full audience and sensing everyone's reactions was even better.

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