Tampopo: Integration not Assimilation for Both Ramen and Japan

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In Juzo Itami’s ramen western, Tampopo, there are many things told about culture, society, and food both subtly and blatantly. I regard the scene where the characters plan out the transformation of Lai Lai into a three star ramen shop to be most important because it gives meaning to the title of the film. It reveals the goal of making the best simple, but profound ramen there is. With the help of Goro and many teachers, Tampopo creates a bowl of ramen that has the customers drinking every last drop of their soup. It also reveals the subtle message Itami’s opinion of the modernization of Japan through Western culture. The West is the teacher that revolutionizes Japan into a modern and powerful country with its own distinct culture heightened by that of the West. 

The dialogue Goro says in this scene emphasizes the simplicity of the menu, as well as the ingredients that will go into the noodles of the newly reformed noodle shop, Tampopo. Instead of a menu with items in the double digits, there are only two items, setting the shop’s atmosphere: a humble noodle shop that follows its name. This scene marks the start of the transformation of the Lai Lai noodle shop, even if it is just a conversation between the characters. Though shot in darker lighting than the last scene once the reform is complete, it is the scene that gives shape to the reformation and the collaboration of all the teachers for the best outcome.

Up to and beyond this point, Goro, Tampopo, and Shohei go around to many different noodle shops to compile ideas for their own ramen, looking at the good and bad.  Instead of stealing one full recipe, they bring the best parts of different recipes to produce Tampopo’s signature ramen, a new image for her store and separate her noodles from the rest. It also distinguishes her traditional noodle shop from a French restaurant, in an earlier scene, that has everything from appetizers to desserts, which is portrayed to be for the rich, but ironically isn’t always understood by the rich.

Some may ask, why would Itami want to separate Tampopo from a French restaurant instead of being associated with one, especially when French cuisine and culture was thought to be stronger than that of Japan at the time? Throughout the film, Juzo Itami criticizes the trend of thinking of French culture so highly as to hold proper French food etiquette, while thinking of doing the same for Japanese food is foolish; a line Goro says himself about the story from the book Gun is reading. Itami satirizes the views of the Japanese towards French cuisine by emphasizing it greatly and juxtaposing it to ramen, a humble commoner’s food. So maybe ramen isn’t as fancy as a full course French meal, Japanese cuisine is much of an art as is the French. In the end of the film, Tampopo is a modernized Japanese shop with Western touches made to it, much like how Japanese culture modernized in the end of the Meiji period. All of which is the outcome that sprouted from conversation between Tampopo and her teachers in Lai Lai noodle shop, like a dandelion. 

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