Filmed during the bubble era, Tampopo is an exploration of food and the way it transcends all aspects of life and society. As the audience, we follow a stream-of-consciousness approach that flows and ebbs from the central story of Tampopo’s noodles to glimpses at the lives of others, including the well-dressed gangster who begins the movie by breaking the fourth wall. In one such vignette, the gangster buys an oyster from a diver, cutting his lip and experiencing unexpected intimacy in the process.
The gangster symbolizes the Western culture that pervaded Japanese society during the 1900s. He eats sophisticated Western cuisine and wears a suit, the iconic Western outfit, rather than showing traditional yakuza fashion such as full-body tattoos. By being Japanese and conspicuously Western at the same time, he represents the Western influence on Japan, which was especially prominent in the 1980s due to the bubble economy, which introduced all manner of Western products into Japan. On the other hand, the pearl diver represents the roots of ancient Japanese culture. Diving for pearls and seafood, or ama, is a Japanese tradition that dates back two thousand years. Ama also dive without diving gear, a nod to the ways of old. Therefore in the two shot, we see a juxtaposition of the new and the old, as well as of the West and the East. Even more significantly, in the screenshot, the gangster is bending over the diver’s hand, as though kissing it as part of Western etiquette, when he is in fact eating from it. The stark difference between the perceived politeness and the actual intimacy of his action reflects the ability of food to reach all extremes of society.
Food is also shown to invert hierarchies, or perhaps to be completely ignorant of them, since in the scene it is the diver, and a woman at that, who is performing the sale and who initiates the kiss rather than the gangster. This impression is strengthened by the fact that even prior to the kiss, the gangster bends down to suck the oyster from the diver’s hand, again inverting their respective heights and perceived power. This scene, then, illustrates Itami Juzo’s belief that Japan was not necessarily inferior to its Westernization. The oyster is used to show the links between the two cultures and the return of even Western influence to Japanese tradition.
Through this scene, Itami Juzo drives the return to tradition even farther back. When the gangster cuts his lip on the oyster, he presents the original and animalistic concept of food. The drop of blood on the oyster is similar to the blood spots sometimes found in chicken eggs, which in turn remind us that food can trace its beginnings to the bloody cycle of life, death, and carnal desire. This is also reflected in that the blood on his lip may also foreshadow the gangster’s imminent demise. Apparently drawn to his bleeding lip, the pearl diver first licks the cut, savoring it like food, before moving in to kiss the gangster fully. The gangster also eats directly from the hand of the diver, disregarding polite distance and setting the stage for a closer bond. Though the diver’s exclamation, “It tickles!” may seem platonic, the presence of blood paves the way for the carnal desire that follows. Additionally, the intimacy of licking each other’s wounds shows empathy, another form of human connection that grows, in this case, into sexual desire.
The eroticism of the scene is slowly realized, but Itami Juzo lays out its foundations early on. The sexual connotation of oysters is evident, and the pearl diver herself is a Japanese feminine symbol, as ama are almost always women. Moreover, divers traditionally dive in only a loincloth, raising the sexual context of the situation despite how the diver in Tampopo is actually dressed. The eroticism stresses the intimate relationship between Westernized Japan and its old traditions, as well as the key role that food plays in intertwining the two.
While the erotic power of food is previously illustrated by the “foodplay” between the gangster and his moll, the oyster scene is particularly distinctive for its sense of serendipity. That a simple oyster purchase between two strangers can escalate into a soulful kiss seizes the moment and delves, presenting a crescendo of a chance meeting transforming into a raw and sexual moment. The scene is used to demonstrate the pleasure of consuming food, as well as the brief but intimate relationships food establishes. Furthermore, food is also shown in this scene to overturn hierarchies by virtue of chance, thus facilitating instead a return to basic human desires and tradition.