Using a medley of characters in seemingly disjoint film sequences, Izumo Jitami plays with the motifs of food as a social equalizer and as a means of distinguishing oneself from conventional norms/beliefs regarding food. Although Tampopo mainly follows the journey of an ambitious ramen chef, the accompanying mini comedies/dramas highlight the societal significance of food and the insignificance of one’s social status to properly appreciate it.
In the first segment, Goro and Gun read about a Noodle Guru teaching his pupil to appreciate noodles as art. The comedic exaggeration of correct noodle consumption is exemplified in their dialogue and in their meticulous manner of eating. The Guru says “You must apologize to the pork by saying ‘see you soon,’” and “Eye it affectionately.” His reverential respect parodies the humbleness of the dish, by elevating it to the level of something exotic – which Gun mocks by declaring “What a fool!” While Gun’s disdain contrasts the Guru’s regard, the audience understands how uniquely food is appreciated.
A prime example of Itami’s use of food as a social equalizer is in the French restaurant with the business executives. While the older men awkwardly order beef and beer, the young associate’s effortlessly navigates his way through the sophisticated foreign menu, conversing with the waiter and demonstrating his culinary prowess. This subversion of expectations of social norms, specifically his deviation from the expectation that he would follow his superiors and not distinguish himself as a knowledge individual, is fully registered in the shocked expressions of his bosses.
In the same restaurant, a tourist eats noodles while a teacher gives an etiquette lesson to young Japanese girls. As she elaborates on the importance of graceful and silent spaghetti consumption, she says, “Even a faint noise like this is taboo abroad,” but across the room, the tourist noisily slurps away. The ladies look scandalized but, again, Jitami flips social convention on its head by rapidly showing them loudly feasting upon their spaghetti with great gusto. This comedic collapse of ‘proper dining’ shows that good table manners are not necessarily universal, nor practiced, even by esteemed foreigners. Although one would expect proper manners in a fancy French restaurant, even expectedly ‘cultured’ and seemingly ‘graceful’ diners do not always display them.
In contrast, Jitami’s group of food-savvy vagabonds, from whom Tampopo enlists help from, show that societal status is irrelevant to gourmet knowledge and culinary appreciation. The vagabonds prove that anyone can be a foodie or a chef, even without a kitchen (just use someone else’s!). Their comments are insightful and comedic (“French cooking is a constant battle with burns!”), and they establish themselves as valid participants in the present foodscape.
Ultimately, Jitami effectively removes the ‘silver spoon’ from the figurative ‘members-only’ dining experience and shows that anyone can be a food fanatic, regardless of rank or level of expertise. The essence of Tampopo is the unadulterated enjoyment of food, whether in a playful, competitive, conventional, or unconventional sense, and it is all that matters.