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Canon Entry - Tampopo (1985)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.

As inventive and delightfully quirky as Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is, its skeleton is quite recognizable. It is an underdog story about an embattled woman, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who seeks the guidance of an older, somewhat grizzled mentor (Tsutomu Yamazaki), to become the best ramen chef possible. Stripped of the specifics, it’s possibly the most popular narrative in all of art. There is even a training montage with Miyamoto wearing a suspiciously Rocky-like outfit while wondering vocally how running will help her become a better ramen chef.

The best part of these narratives for me is not the end product when the underdog (usually) overcomes, or at least achieves a personal victory, but rather the process through which the protagonist gets there. Tampopo certainly has no lack of mentors to help her along every step of the way. Her education is decidedly holistic, as she learns not only to make the best broth and ramen possible, but also how to present herself to customers, remember long lists of orders among other responsibilities. Towards the end when Tampopo has her mentors try her final ramen, the five men that try it don’t even represent all the people who have actually helped her.

Which begs the question why exactly are these men helping her? They are certainly not in love with her, except for possibly Goro. Most of them don’t have a financial stake in the business, and in fact, a wealthy benefactor donates his best chef to Tampopo in gratitude for saving his life from choking. I realize that it is unfair for this lightweight fantasy of a movie to bear the brunt of this mundane question, but it’s worth asking anyways.

I think these men help Tampopo because they respond to her spirit of sincere humility. That she commits so wholeheartedly to tutelage and discipleship without a trace of ego is not to be underestimated. True, she needs to earn a living for herself and her son, but for much of the movie, it doesn’t seem that money is her main concern. We can see the thrill of accomplishment on her face when she successfully gets a chef to reveal how he makes his noodles to when she successfully remembers a long list of orders. Itami is clearly the auteur at work here, framing Tampopo’s accomplishments with creative, dynamic scenes, but much credit has to go to Miyamoto for creating such a sympathetic and likable character.

This movie is full of dreamers like these men. They see culinary excellence as the highest goal, perhaps none more so than the beggars who break into kitchens of high-end restaurants to prepare culinary masterpieces. Itami intersperses his movie with vignettes about food to show why exactly these men might be right to consider food so highly. Food is so carnal and visceral that it can cut across multiple layers of human propriety tempered by civilization. Think of the women at the European etiquette class who give into their hunger when they see a European man dig into his food with great gusto. Or the woman who literally rises from her death bed because her husband demands that she cooks fried rice for the family. Itami even manages to fit in some sly social commentary in a scene where a junior businessman shows up his stuffy, overbearing seniors with his vast culinary knowledge.

As visually splendid and mouthwatering the depiction of food is in this movie, ultimately, what I respond to most in this film is Tampopo’s quest for excellence and how willingly the people in her life support this quest. I think Itami really loved this element of Tampopo as well. Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative process, and, intentional or not, many of the men in the movie correspond with the different people involved in making a film. Goro would be the director. There is the reformed local thug who could be the production designer since he offers to make over Tampopo’s restaurant. The assistant chef could be a co-screenwriter or even an editor.

And then there is, of course, the audience. There is a little breaking of the fourth wall as one of the characters of the vignettes expounds on the sins of eating loudly in a movie theater. It is mirrored immediately after with an elderly man instructing an eager young pupil on the “correct” way to eat ramen. The elderly man’s relationship with ramen is humorously disturbing as he deconstructs the consumption in a ceremonious and reverent manner. I was almost convinced by his shtick until he started spanking the fishcake with his chopsticks, which suddenly gave the whole lesson a completely different meaning. This is certainly not the kinkiest use of food standing in for other more lurid acts (that egg yolk scene!). I can almost see Itami rubbing his hands in Hitchockian glee as our minds rush to the dirtiest of places. This is the only film I have seen of Itami’s, but it seems that he delights in how food cuts to the very core of people, and I would not be surprised if his other films play on similar themes.

Or if he isn’t skewering propriety then perhaps Itami is warning us that what we are about to witness onscreen is sheer fantasy. That even as the characters take their culinary inclinations absolutely seriously, that it is OK to laugh at them. It’s not like they care that they might be objects of derision. It’s easy to laugh at people who are obsessed with a pursuit that other finds trivial, even laughable. It’s harder to laugh with such people as Itami encourages us to do in this case.

 

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