A World of Food We Have Never Known

Tampopo is fairly easy to follow—a man, Goro helps Tampopo, the widowed owner of a noodle shop, understand the true art of making and selling ramen. However,  in the different short vignettes inserted into this main narrative, Itami Juzo presents food in a bold, inhibited manner that illustrates various roles of food. Itami utilizes certain cinematic techniques such as POV shots, extreme close-ups, and fluid transitions to break down the boundaries of film and reality for the audience to truly experience, see, and almost taste food in unimaginable ways.

From the beginning, it is impossible to view the film objectively as the gangster speaks to us directly—hinting at the basic theater courtesies to our own audience—and dissolves the distinction between our two worlds. The extreme close-up of his face and the mobile camera closes the distance between cinematic reality and ours as we find ourselves becoming part of his theater space.

We instantly become an omniscient, omnipotent character in the film when we are placed in Goro’s perspective before even the credits roll. The POV shots are subtle but crucial as Itami inserts them in moments to almost live vicariously through the characters. For example, after a rather odd sequence of the gangster eating an oyster from a young girl, we are placed quickly in a different story of a man with a toothache whose pain is more relatable to us. Itami takes us one step further when we are actually placed in the dentist chair—in the perspective of the man. We move from empathy to ultimate dread as we revoke our own memories in the dentist office.

When Tampopo’s son requests an omelette, we are invited to see the careful process that the cook undergoes to create such a simple dish. Similar to the concept of the male gaze upon the female body as the object of desire, we gaze upon the close-ups of food and the process of ramen creation with a similar yearning and lust. In all sequences of food, no dialogue is necessary as the food speaks for itself with the camera placed in birds-eye view; Itami wants us to only concentrate on the food and our involuntary reactions toward it. However, he then overturns every conventional view on food by placing the same ingredient in the next sequence. Itami rather foreshadows the reverse version of the egg by the subtle transition as the singing in the previous story is still heard in the background. In a long, unedited shot, the gangster and his girlfriend rallies the yolk of an egg in their mouths. By placing us right in the middle—sometimes right in between the two characters—Itami challenges us to really explore different ways to experience food and not restrict it to mere daily consumption.

Tampopo’s heart-warming story may be the main plot, but it is the short sequences that really express Itami’s intention to depict food as a rather adaptable and universal medium. Although the film may seem rather “random” and erratic, the carefully constructed shots edited together suggest otherwise as viewers walk out of Tampopo with a new perspective on food.

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