Tampopo (Japan, 1985) [NYAFF Winter Showcase 2020]

Juzo Itami’s Tampopois a Japanese comedy film about the art of making a perfect bowl of ramen, but it also contains subversive elements that make it extra palatable to the taste of the mass audience.

Its simple story arc starts with a widowed woman named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) tending a rundown ramen house that serves lukewarm ramen. One rainy night, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe), truck drivers, dropped by to take a break from a long drive, only to end up in a fight with local gangsters.

Goro took on the fight, while Gun carry on with his delivery duties. Goro, bruised and broken, stayed for the night. When he recuperated, he woke up in the presence of Tampopo. Gun returned to the ramen house to fetch Goro and had a sumptuous breakfast prepared by Tampopo. Curious about Goro and Gun’s opinion about her ramen, Tampopo asked about their judgment regarding the quality of her cooking. Goro and Gun admittedly said that her ramen does not taste good. Resolved and convinced about their expertise, Tampopo asked Goro to mentor her and transform her place into the best ramen place in town. This is what drives the main narrative arc forward, Tampopo’s quest for the mastery of cooking ramen.

The chronicle of Tampopo and the gang in their quest for the perfection of their ramen recipe, from the stock to the quality of noodles, to the ratio of side ingredients, reminds us of the importance of social investigation in pursuing a vision, an idea, or a concept. “One’s own practice in itself alone” is not enough to constitute a perfect ramen, but it rather takes the whole collective knowledge of the industry to make one.

Tampopo also effectively parodies the detective/procedural approach in piecing together the narrative as it follows and introduces one character after the other in their contribution to making the ingredient their ramen perfect. The film somewhat shows the competitive nature of artisanship among ramen chefs. That ramen chefs are protective of their secret ingredient. The main narrative arc highlights the fetishism for food authenticity. It tells us that the ramen has to be authentically sourced and made within the cultural boundaries of the industry and that it must be responsive to the parameters of local connoisseurs and patrimonial values.

The film’s main narrative arc is about collaborations and shared aesthetic aspirations, portrayed in ‘ramen’ western style, a spinoff of spaghetti western. Itami is conscious of genre conventions of the Western: a heroic conquest ready-at-hand laid out in the expanse of the mythical frontier in the ever-expanding horizon, but he played with it by adding digressions, and disrupting the presumed narrative structure of the film.

As the main narrative arc unfolds, digressions puncture its episodic traverse. Tampopo’s uniqueness lies not in its main narrative arc but in its digressive punctum, where fetishism eroticizes and exoticizes further Japanese cuisine, enough to bring the notion of food to the level of metaphysical decadence, uprooting it from being exclusively embedded in the culture of Japan, elevating Japanese-ness into an experience of multiculturality.

Indeed, Tampopo is not only about mastering the art of ramen but about the social and metaphysical dimension of food in general. The opening scene itself is a digression, unrelated to the main narrative arc, depicting an unnamed gangster character in white tuxedo berating a noisy chip-eating customer in a movie theater. Digressions in the film functions as a critique of social conventions of eating.

Tampopo’s stream of digressions from the narrative is both humorous and absurd, it subverts normally preconceived notions of social graces on food. For example, the businessmen eating French cuisine who were ironically uncultured enough to pick from the foreign French menu is put into a self-humiliating situation when their lowly assistant ordered French cuisine as if an expert on the subject matter.

Another digressive scene occurs in a fast-moving train where a girl in a Chinese outfit offers Chinese food to a man with toothache; the other one is a family man who runs home only to find his wife cook the last meal for their family before she dies. All these digressions are outside the main story arc. They constitute Tampopo’s extensive investment in the libidinal economy to stir the discourse on the element of sociality in food and highlight the fact the notion of food in built on the interconnectedness of life itself.

Tampopo’s incorporation of digressions does not lock its narrative in a singular lens as a total system, but it is interested in portraying the multitudinal vitalism of food in a nation more open to globalization that before, a nation with a cultural essence that no longer identifies to a certain Japanese-ness but to a certain internationalism that cuts across all facets of life, from one’s birth to one’s death, and after which, one’s rebirth – the infinite cycle of life fulfilled.

Tampopo is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase 2020 on February 15.