Food, Sex, and the West in Tampopo

A man and woman share an egg in an intimate embrace

A man and woman share an egg in an intimate embrace

In the Japanese film Tampopo, director Juzo Itami uses food, ramen noodles in particular, to highlight the explosion of new goods and the emergence of a consumer culture during the Bubble Era in Tokyo and the consequential drowning out of long-standing Japanese traditions. The film follows a young Japanese woman, Tampopo, on her quest to turn her small restaurant into the best ramen noodle joint in all Japan. Itami plays on the western genre in conjunction with a salute to ramen noodles and Japanese food in general to emphasis the collision of two opposing cultures. A reoccurring theme that best demonstrates this cultural mingling is food as a driving force in sex.

The above clip is taken from one of the film’s odd sex scenes. In this particular case, a man and a woman are standing in an uncomfortable yet intimate embrace passing an egg between each other’s mouths. With each exchange they grow more and more excited until finally the women breaks the egg between her teeth and lets the yoke run down her chin in a fashion that mocks the overcoming feelings of ecstasy and sexual release experienced after an orgasm. This, without question, was one of the stranger scenes in the film and elicited nervous laughs throughout the class. However, this scene is extremely important in combining the undeniable human need for food for survival with raw sexual desire. Through the use of food as a stimulant, Itami demonstrates that these desires are closely linked and that eating food can bring a person the same deal of pleasure as can a sexual act. Itami also demonstrates that eating should be a celebrated experience that is intended to bring the consumer great satisfaction and happiness.

This scene is also significant in that it represents the complicated relationship between the Western world and Japan during the Showa Era. During this postmodern time, Japan was the world’s second largest economy. This resulted in an overflow of money, people, and goods from overseas into Japan. Because of this explosion of new cultures and ideas, Japan quickly adopted the mentality of “out with the old” in order to remain relevant. The man and women’s intimate sharing of the egg can be interpreted as the unstable and uncomfortable relationship between the West and Japan at this time and their sharing of ideas, goods, and cultures. The man is the West and stands dominate over its Japanese counterpart, as depicted by the woman. However, the relationship grows more equal and intimate as they stand with locked arms and faces pressed together. This represents Japan’s growing importance to the West as it began to emerge as a world super power. The final breaking of the yoke in the woman’s mouth emphasis Japan’s subordinate role to western powers and how it was unable to maintain all of its roots and traditions during this time.

In this way, Itami brings food to the forefront of cultural importance in Japan during the Bubble Era by using it to represent both our primitive desires as well as the fragile yet intimate relationship between Japan and the West.

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