ITAMI Juzo’s 1982 film, Tampopo, is a series of vignettes that explore the various aspects of food that go beyond the simple acts of cooking and eating. Throughout the film, we are able to see the transformation of a mediocre ramen cook into a first class chef with the help of a small group of unexpected teachers. These noodle sensei essentially teach her that cooking ramen is not merely the repetition of boiling, serving and consumption, but a true art of following proper techniques to create a perfect bowl of ramen with excellent customer service. This includes remembering each customers’ order to the tee – knowing what and when they ordered, creating the noodles to be “smooth…with great body” through exact kneading, rolling, and use of soda water, and discovering a delicious soup recipe. The film allows the audience to see a rare point of view of simple comfort food and redefine the attitude and appreciation toward this modest Japanese dish. This unique view initially seems absurd and comical, but it plays as a reoccurring motif regarding food as an entity of life that requires precise preparation, affectionate appreciation and respectful consumption.
The scene when Gun is reading a book about a noodle sensei teaching his student how to properly eat a bowl of ramen is the first instance of when the ordinary dish is viewed with high esteem. According to the story, the old man had studied ramen for forty years and spoke of the bowl as if he were viewing an elegant piece of art, describing various element with words such as “jewels of fat glittering” and “roots shining.” He continued his lesson by showing his student how to “caress it” and “express affection” toward it, and later eating each piece deliberately. This clip shows the unique relationship made with the eater and their food. This signifies that food does not simply sustain life, but rather nourishes the mind, body and soul through the affection each individual has for each plate or bowl.
In another part of the film, the relationship between the chef and their customers is depicted. During Tampopo’s search for the perfect recipe for soup, she has a dream that she and Goro go into a rival ramen shop, leave their bowl unfinished, purposefully insult their food and challenge them to try their noodles. Tampopo’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare when the rival ramen chefs arrive in the morning and her soup is not clear. This scene is a portrayal of how each bowl served, however many it may be, is a masterpiece that the chef had created and perfected for many years, therefore assuming proper reverence from its eaters through the act of finishing the bowl. Here we see that the food was not cooked for profit in a routine manner, but rather produced following an exact ritual. Furthermore, Tampopo’s dream turned into nightmare depicts that even for armatures, food that they serve must always be their best; something they are prideful of.
Ultimately, ITAMI Juzo’s use of comedy and satire in the seemingly random amalgamation of vignettes allows viewers to open their mind to a new appreciation of food, rather it be as simple as a traditional dish or as sophisticated as foreign cuisine.