Conventions of Japan’s Food Culture

           Itami Juzo’s 1985 film, Tampopo, portrays a series of vignettes where food and the social conventions of food play defining roles in the film. In the very opening scene, the doors of a theater burst open to present a yakuza member, dressed in a crisp white suit, with his entourage trailing behind him. The gangster and his girlfriend take their seats in the front row as the camera gradually zooms in, framing the lavish basket of food and champagne being unpacked before them. From this very beginning scene, it is clear that the intention of the film is to reveal that food plays a role in every facet of life. Champagne is poured into two flutes, and as the gangster lifts the flute to his lips, he looks at the camera, speaks to us directly, and the first lines of the film are used to ask us, the audience, what we are eating.

"Oh...So you're at a movie too. What are you eating?"

“Oh…So you’re at a movie too. What are you eating?”

           The opening scene of a film usually sets the tone of how viewers should interpret what follows, however, in the case of Tampopo, with is various subplots, the scene does little to allude what is to follow in the film. Yet, it still illustrates the satirical take of challenging conventional ideas regarding the experience of food. It also introduces the various cinematic techniques of Itami, as the yakuza, played by Koji Yakusho, breaks the fourth wall to blur the boundary of film and reality. It should be noted that this fourth wall is not broken immediately as Yakusho enters the theater but only after he catches sight of us, further closing the gap between cinematic reality and our own. Furthermore, as he recognizes that we too are viewing a movie it leaves us contemplating whether we are watching the same film as we find ourselves becoming part of his theater experience.

           The notion of strict social conventions in regards to food is illustrated as a man loudly crunches his curry chips, only to be grabbed by the lapels by the gangster and threatened to be killed if he were to make another sound.  The gangster figure in the film reflects the overarching themes of pleasure associated with food while at the same time manifests an obsession of societal rules surrounding food. At times, it may seem as these two ideas are contradictory in that the conventions associated with food is what restrains one from openly enjoying it. However, it is these two contradictory themes that allude that Itami is both praising the importance of customs in Japanese life, while at the same time making a criticism of the invisible societal rules that the culture instills. Perhaps Itami is making a statement of how Japan’s food culture’s tendency to impose strict etiquette inhibits the true enjoyment of food.

           Food is used as a narrative device in order to express a satirical rebuttal to the formalization and strict conventions in Japan’s food culture. The fact that the opening scene breaks the fourth wall, establishes immediately that Itami is not telling a conventional story. More importantly, it is this break from conventionality that allows the film to portray a new perspective on food. By breaking the fourth wall, it dissolves the border between reality and film, which underscores the social satire about contemporary Japan. While some will argue, Itami’s intention with Tampopo is to celebrate Japan’s food culture, it can also be seen to make a bold statement about Japan’s social conventions in regard to food.

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