Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a bubble era film about an amateur ramen chef, Tampopo, striving to cook the perfect bowl of ramen. Yet, it is more than that. Along with Tampopo’s main plot, interwoven vignettes demonstrate the various messages Itami conveys in his film: satire of the materialism during the bubble era, nostalgia of the past, the breaking barriers and the establishment of new ones, and the importance of food and its role in establishing bonds, among others. The film’s climax, the moment when Tampopo succeeds in her quest for perfection, encompasses all of those central themes.
The satire of the new materialism of the 1980’s, although not obvious, is present in this pivotal scene. Throughout the shot, there are many close-ups of Tampopo’s anxious face, clearly indicating how much her “master’s” opinion of her ramen means to her. She looks like she is about to cry; that is how important this immaterial judgment means to her. The alternating light and dark lighting as well as the orchestral music further create the tense, heavy mood. This significance of ramen, and food in general, throughout the movie contrasts sharply to the emphasis placed on material objects during the ‘80’s. As Japan moved forward to become a modern country, people looked away from the small things of the past and left them behind. However, Itami’s focus on the everyday miracle of food points out Japan’s gradual abandonment of its traditions and expresses nostalgia for the past.
Ironically, Itami’s film also encourages progress and the breaking of barriers while creating new ones. The various vignettes, such as the manners lesson and the gangster’s inventive way to enjoy food with his lover, demonstrate different aspects of culture. The success of Tampopo also illustrates the breaking of boundaries. The old homeless master notes at the end of the scene that he never expected a woman to become a noodle chef, yet Tampopo has done just that. This is also juxtaposed to the fact that all her “masters” are male. She has broken down an old traditional barrier and has become an independent, successful woman, creating a modern social norm.
However, Itami’s focus on food is not just to support incorporation of the past and future, but also to emphasize the importance of food because of its role in establishing bonds. Throughout the film, this theme is constantly apparent, from the homeless’ union over food to the gangster and his lover’s unusual enjoyment of food. This is also apparent in the snapshot. The bright lighting, as well as the close-up of Tampopo’s tearful celebration, clearly demonstrates the importance of this scene. All five men, all with completely different backgrounds- a trucker and his sidekick, a homeless man, a butler, and a thug- all have come together for the sake of ramen. In the snapshot, all men are doing the same thing: enjoying a delicious bowl of ramen.
Tampopo’s triumph in creating the perfect ramen is not just a private, personal achievement, but she also succeeds in creating a food over which strangers from infinite walks of life can come together and bond.