Tampopo: Perceived Culture versus Actual Culture — Eating Spaghetti in Japan

In Tampopo, a variety of formats are used to good effect in providing social satire.  Most of these satirical moments are provided in a kind of aside.  The camera turns to some ostensibly typical situation as the main characters pass by without taking notice.  This in itself gives the impression that such episodes are happening at any given time and in any given place.

In general, Tampopo conforms to a kind of story-telling mode, but there is one scene in particular that I would like to examine as one of the aforementioned satirical asides.

What appears to be a Westerner in an upscale restaurant draws our attention to the group group, and the movie all but assumes the format of a “how-to” video on etiquette.  The scene becomes interesting as the instructor begins to stress the importance of silence in one’s consumption.

Suddenly, there is a loud slurping noise which is revealed to be the Westerner who first noticed the group devouring his noodles without seeming to care at all about the noise he is making.

The instructor tries to explain what is happening in a round-a-bout way, saying some people don’t realize that they are making noise, but ultimately the whole group follows the example set by the real Westerner and slurps their noodles from their plates as directly as possible into their stomachs.

While this is presented as a simple comic moment, I think the scene contains some serious commentary about Japanese society, human intrigue in the exotic and the gap between what is generally perceived of Western culture and Western culture itself.

It is commonly known that Japanese culture contains a lot of cultural customs, particularly for tea ceremonies.  Even in general there is a lot of “Kimari-Monku” which are those things which must be said when entering someone’s home, leaving work, and in any variety of other settings.  For example, “itadakimasu” seems somewhat similar to “saying grace” before eating, but perhaps without much religious implication in the case of Japanese.

I suspect the teacher is supposed to be projecting these kinds of definitive customs on the whole Western world when such customs are rarely observed by common people.  If anywhere, they probably are only observed by aristocrats during the most public of dining parties.  The gap between perceived culture and actual culture is made very clear as the Westerner slurps up his noodles clearly not caring about the sound.

It is also interesting to note that this scene follows a scene in which one young company man is discreetly kicked and scolded as he demonstrates his deep knowledge of French cuisine to the waiter while the rest of his company-lunch cohorts have ordered simple meals.  In some sense, he is being punished for his love of exotic foods and for knowing too much about Western culture, and I presume some of the reason he is looked down on in this respect is that he has lost (or never had) the respect for the implicit rules of a typical Japanese company lunch.

With these two asides from the main story, Tampopo tells something of a universal story of intrigue for the exotic food and cultures but which some prefer to temper in order to preserve their own food and culture.


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