Food in Tampopo: Back to simplicity


The movie Tampopo consists of several short stories, presenting with a comprehensive and unique insight of the food culture in Japan. One of the earliest stories shows the appreciation of ramen. In this particular medium two-shot, two men sit in a traditional Japanese restaurant ready to have ramen. The old man shows the custom before eating, staring at the ramen, apologizing to the pork, etc. For us audiences, we watch the actions with curiosity and confusion as the young man. He pays full attention to the old man, trying to imitate his action. On the other hand, the old man enjoys the procedure. He makes pork and ramen sunk in the soup with chopsticks, and looks at the ramen as if he were communicating with it, with pleasure and expectation in his eyes.


This shot shows the audience the theme of the movie from the very first time: food. In 1985 when the film was made, Japan was still at the climax of its economy growth. High international culture flowed in Japan with labors and money, established as an icon of prestige. This point is illustrated by the scenes of ordering French food and eating spaghetti later in the film. Contrasted with those scenes, elements shown in this shot, such as ramen, chopsticks and wood-made table, are rooted in Japanese traditional culture.


The motif of the movie is that everyone is equal in the field of food culture. In this shot, two men sit on the same table and eat same ramen. The young man, though awkwardly, followed the old man’s instruction carelessly and happily. The old man, though dressed formally, is willing to respond to the young man’s questions which seem stupid to him. The statuses of these two men are equal. This presentation was a breakthrough in Japan where social classes are highly emphasized. And equality is the crux the director wants to express in food culture.


Let’s think about other scenes in Western restaurants in the movie. In the French restaurant, the young man must sit after everyone else has done so, and his fluency in ordering food is considered as an insult to other high-class people. The female is the authority when teaching how to eat spaghetti. And ironically, the luxurious decorations in western restaurants create stiff and unfriendly atmosphere. On the other hand, director uses red as the main color, with yellow light in the ramen scene. As I mentioned before, two men have equal statuses. They have casual conversation. Everything makes an intimate and friendly environment for not only the two men but also the audiences. Itami intentionally stresses this scene, which Japanese audiences are most familiar with, as the paradigm of enjoying food to remind people not to forget the pure pleasure of food.


Furthermore, Japanese people are good at finding pleasure from ordinary things. A bowl of ramen is much less noticeable than haute western food. However, Itami shows a complex procedure before eating ramen. Pork, noodles and seaweed all have different way to treat with. At the time when people were fascinated by incoming western culture, this shot reminds Japanese people of their food culture which different from western ones. For Itami, it’s better for people to get rid of the rapidly-changed popular fashion and return back to simplicity. Even a small bowl of ramen can give us warmth and make us as happy as the two men are.


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