This year’s theme for the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase is “Love at First Bite,” which celebrates the rich and diverse food culture showcased in Asian film. It would be remiss not to include Tampopo (1985), a comedy by Juzo Itami that earned international acclaim for exploring Japanese society through the lens of food. Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, plays Tampopo in the movie.
The central plot follows Tampopo, an aspiring ramen chef who learns the craft under the guidance of a cowboy-like truck driver and ramen connoisseur named Goro. From the moment Goro walks in the door of her unassuming shop, he feels the urge to help Tampopo, first by brawling with the gangsters loitering in her store and then by setting up a training regimen to transform her into a professional ramen chef. Despite his seemingly harsh comments (“Don’t be a weakling!”), Goro takes genuine pride in Tampopo’s progress as she hones not only the ramen-making craft, but also the customer interaction and competitor analysis skills that distinguish a professional chef from a skilled cook.
While there are tender moments between Tampopo and Goro, the film avoids placing the central focus on a love line and instead highlights the intersection of food and cultural quirks by splicing seemingly unrelated montages in between scenes of Tampopo’s story. While these scenes enable Itami to explore food in the contexts of death, eroticism, family, and social customs, they came across as a bit out of place in the context of the main plot.
A recurring theme in these short scenes is food as temptation. In one scene, a young boy wearing a carrot and a note saying, “I only eat natural food. Do not give me sweets,” encounters a man who offers him ice cream, and the boy, after moments of hesitation, can’t help but accept. However, the film also illuminates the danger of succumbing to this temptation in a parallel scene where an elderly man, despite explicit instructions by his caretaker, scarfs down dishes he is forbidden to eat in such a hurry that he nearly chokes. In an absurd yet heroic move, Tampopo saves his life by using a vacuum cleaner to extricate the food from his airway.
One scene that stood out is where Goro brings Tampopo and her son to a band of ragtag, homeless folk who also happen to be food connoisseurs. As they generously offer what meager food they have to Tampopo and her son, a man caked in grime describes the exquisite flavor profile of a 1980 Chateau Pichon Lalande he found in an alleyway. While it may seem irrational for homeless people to have such high standards for food they can barely afford, this scene is a reminder of how food can be a great equalizer; everyone, rich or poor, young or old, can derive joy from quality food.
Tampopo’s character development is clearly visible towards the film’s end when she expertly analyzes her competitors’ ingredients and techniques, once even going so far as to dig through a pile of scraps to identify the ingredients for the soup base.
She impresses her team of supporters and runs her ramen shop so well that the line is out the door, and while Goro was an instrumental figure in Tampopo’s success, the film makes sure to give Tampopo the credit she deserves. This is particularly notable in a society as patriarchal as Japan’s, however, it may not be surprising to those familiar with Itami’s tendency to satirize aspects of Japanese society in his other works. Overall, Tampopo is a feel-good, comedic fray into the intricate world of Japanese food, serving up scenes guaranteed to ignite laughter (and ramen cravings!).