The Ramen Master

Tampopo Ramen Master

The young man observes the ramen master meticulously take his first bite of pork.

Itami Jūzō’s film Tampopo (1985) explores the struggle of a single mother, Tampopo, to improve her Tokyo ramen shop and beat out the competition. Two truck drivers approach her ramen shop, and (after a western style showdown) the two strangers eventually become Tampopo’s ramen-teachers. Within Tampopo’s story to become a master in making ramen, Itami includes vignettes that showcase the different relationships between Japanese people and food. A few relationships Itami illustrates are food as a source of pleasure, food as the foundation of a community, and food as a symbol of status in the business culture in Japan.

The most important scene in the film is the scene of a ramen master teaching a young man how to properly eat ramen. The importance of this scene is mostly due to the fact that it is the first scene in the film depicting a relationship between characters and food. It also is significant because Itami reveals the relationship between Japanese tradition and modernity in society. The mise-en-scene illustrates this contrast between tradition and modernity. The ramen master’s actions are very stoical and he dresses in traditional Japanese attire. Contrastingly, the young man has a modern haircut and is wearing a “western” style shirt. His actions are more animated and slightly boorish. Another aspect of the mise-en-scene is the background: the customers vary in age and their varying clothing suggests different lifestyles. The customers are an important part of the mise-en-scene because throughout the film, Itami depicts ramen as a food that brings many different people together—representing the theme of community and relationships. The camera angles are also as significant as the mise-en-scene. The scene begins with an extreme long shot of Tokyo, switches to close-ups of the two men eating ramen and includes close up shots of the ramen itself. The camera angle pans into the close up of the ramen, creating dramatization of the food—making the ramen seem even more distinguished.

Classical music begins to play as the master teaches the young man how to eat ramen. This is quite comical, since ramen is known to be a cheap common dish equivalent to fast food. Itami’s concept of depicting ramen as a highly detailed dish that requires meticulous and strategic eating habits, illustrates the merging of tradition and modernity. Traditionally ramen was a comfort food; however, in modern society ramen has more popularity and prominence. In history, specifically in the Meiji restoration, Japanese associated French cuisine as a symbol of high status and prestige. In a later scene in Tampopo, there is a business meeting that includes French cuisine reestablishing the high-society connotation of French cuisine in Japan. Through the lesson on ramen etiquette, Itami portrays ramen at an equal level to French cuisine.

In the ramen master’s scene, Itami establishes ramen as a delicacy that requires appreciation. This is supported by Tampopo going through so much training to rebuild her ramen shop and find the best recipe for her signature ramen menu. Therefore, this scene is the foundation of Tampopo’s journey.

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