Tampopo, a perfect movie morsel from 1985, is a uniquely Japanese take on food, cooking and eating. An endlessly inventive comedy, the film is highly spiced with mad humour, and stuffed with wonderful set-piece scenes. It’s also one of my favourite films.
The central storyline revolves around the recently widowed single mum, Tampopo, who is attempting to continue running her husband’s ramen shop. Her name means dandelion, a resilient flower that symbolises healing from emotional pain, intelligence (especially in an emotional and spiritual sense), and the warmth and power of the rising sun. All very apt for this heroine.
Unfortunately, Tampopo can’t make ramen worth eating and that’s putting her out of business. Under her traditional Japanese woman’s demeanour, Tampopo is a feisty soul and not one to throw in the towel. Not only does she want to uphold the reputation of her late husband’s restaurant – she wants to be a top ramen cook too.
Fortunately, five strangers come into her life, and with their encouragement and help, she starts off on a mission to make the best ramen in Tokyo. Her team comprise Goro, a rough-neck truckie, his young offsider Gun and a drunken contractor with a yen for interior decoration. A ramen guru so enlightened he’s known only as Sensei (Master), and the chef/chauffeur of a food-mad old rich dude complete this Fellowship of the Ramen.
Tampopo’s quest for the perfect broth and noodles, the real guts of good ramen, involves some culinary espionage. She is taken to spy on successful ramen shops in order to learn their secrets. Everything you ever wanted to know about ramen is here. From leaving the noodle dough out overnight and then rolling it three times, to not putting fish-heads in the stock, we see that each ramen shop’s food is unique. Every ramen cook has their trademark way of doing things.
It’s not just the food that needs studying. In one bravua scene, Tampopo and Goro watch a single ramen cook remembering an ever-growing cascade of orders coming from the freshly disembarked passengers of a subway train. Even as he puts together multiple bowls of ramen, more and more people fill the shop, each one calling out their own special order; some without certain ingredients, some with extras. Without the aid of pen and paper the eidetic cook gets each and every order right.
From time to time the movie wanders off into stories that have no relation to Tampopo’s education in the making of top-flight ramen. These self-contained tales feature many idiosyncratic characters. Characters like the gourmet bums, who scavenge the rubbish bins of top restaurants looking for scraps of foi-gras, nuggets of filet steak and the dregs of expensive bottles of wine. And there’s a dapper Yakuza gangster who sexually excites his lady friend with a raw egg, brandy and a live prawn. He later finds strange pleasure with a freshly-caught oyster, his own blood and a teenage oyster diver. Yep, it’s bizarre at times, with some off-beat, maybe uniquely Japanese, humour that I must confess I don't always get.
This sense of humour is a perfect mix of profundity and the hilarious. The scene in which Sensei shows an eager Gun how to eat ramen makes me laugh even as I want to shut up and listen. Please, take a moment here and imbibe some of this deliciously funny wisdom.
And do I laugh or cry in the scene where a dying mum is roused by her husband to make dinner for the family? She prepares dinner – then drops dead. “Keep on eating,” dad cries to the mourning kids, “It’s the last meal mum cooked! Eat while it’s hot.”
The journey of Tampopo, from purveyor of bad ramen to culinary and professional success, works just fine. With Tampopo’s motley crew of experts, Rocky-style training sessions and rival noodle-shop crews, it’s a story of empowerment and healing. What makes the film far more interesting than this are its deeper themes – our relationship with food, and food’s relationship with society being just two of the more recognizable. Conventions are upturned and snobs and gluttons punished. The gap between rich and poor, the weak and the strong, and the old and the new are bridged with all-too-human aspirations, expectations and failings.
There are other less obvious themes that make re-watching the film a real treat. Things connect and resonate in oblique ways that ring true, but are not easily explained, and that’s refreshing. What’s obvious though, and simmering at the heart of the movie, is an immense affection and love for the processes and joy in cooking and eating food. The film-makers not only make me feel hungry, they also make me feel stuff, sometimes indescribable, about food and its consumption.
In a perfect understanding of the battle between magic and industry that lies at professional cooking’s core, the film’s director Juzo Itami said – “There’s real correlation between filmmaking and the restaurant business. They both need to satisfy indefinite and unknowable things in the audience, and bring in, within budget, products that are of high quality and will make a profit.”
I’ve done my best, but Tampopo is uncategorizable and somewhat indescribable. It happily follows its own logic and pulls it off, leaving you with tears of mirth in your eyes, even as it creates an intriguing sense of the magic and metaphysics of food, its cooking and eating. This film is a heaped smorgasbord; a strange rich repast that bears second, third or fourth helpings. I’ve seen it six times.