Culture is closely entwined with food. Through the story of Tampopo and several short scenes that demonstrate Japan’s food culture, Juzo Itami explores this relationship between Japanese culture and food. In Tampopo, food becomes a celebration, hard work, and even a sensual act.
Perhaps the most important scene that encompasses Tampopo’s themes is the one of two men sitting inside a ramen shop. The elderly teacher instructs his young pupil with the proper techniques to eating a bowl of noodles. The old man tells the young man to admire and caress the noodles. Throughout the scene, the teacher stresses many elaborate steps to savor the ramen. This glorification of ramen, though hilarious, celebrates the food culture in Japan. The etiquette the teacher displays is a way of saying that all food is worth celebrating. What was once a common bowl of ramen noodles suddenly becomes an object of high cultural status to the audience.
Additionally, this scene demonstrates that food can also be connected to hard work. The teacher stresses the effort that one must exert in order to fully enjoy ramen. One scene in the film that counters the scene of the teacher and his pupil is the one in which an older man overindulges in food. He devours his large meal as if he had been starving for days. Choking on his food, the old man has his meal sucked out with a vacuum to save him. From this scene we realize the importance of savoring food. The hard work that goes into the ramen that we see in Tampopo’s quest for the perfect noodles needs to be appreciated with an equal amount of effort in eating ramen. Thus, the elderly teacher shows us that food should be appreciated because of the hard work that goes into any recipe.
Lastly, this scene also implies that eating food can also be an erotic act. Eating is a way to express love or to pleasure oneself. The older man stares at the bowl of noodles in the way a lover would gaze at his partner. He smells the aromas and appreciates the “jewels of fat” that sit on the surface. The old man then uses chopsticks to stroke the bowl of noodles. This scene indicates that caressing the noodles is related to sensual acts like caressing one’s lover. As the old man begins to eat the noodles, he instructs the young man to eye the pork affectionately while eating. All these small details indicate that eating can be a sexual deed. This idea is later reinforced by the scenes of the man pleasuring his lover with food.
This opening scene of the ramen master in Tampopo is essential in understanding the film’s central themes. The scene is the most significant because it gives the audience a peek into food’s role in Japan’s culture. Every small detail is a hint to the many connections that food has with culture whether it’s celebration, work, or sex.