Ramen: An Innocent Meal

Even if Tampopo wasn’t necessarily your ideal bowl of ramen, it would take a rather cynical individual to not admire Juzo Itame’s tasteful interpretation of an evolving Japanese cuisine. At its heart, Tampopo is a tale of struggle and triumph, driven by the innocence of Tampopo (a small-time ramen chef) who perfects her ramen cooking abilities. Through the magic of cinematography, food becomes subject to its context. Itame skillfully weaves through different images of Japanese cuisine, all of which carry distinct references to Japan’s culinary landscape.

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In one scene, an old lady squeezes a ripe peach until it seems to lose its value, much to the dismay of the store owner. The scene continues with a very satirical cat-and-mouse pursuit, until the owner finally catches the old lady red handed. In ways, this scene conveys the sense of innocence typically associated with traditional foods. Furthermore, it could also represent the struggle between so-called high and low culture foods in modern Japanese cuisine.

Itame uses a satirical approach to help portray the innocence of food as the old lady is being chased by the store owner. In a sense, the scene alludes to Tom and Jerry, Hannah-Barbara’s iconic Sunday morning family fixation. Such an allusion promotes the thought of childish innocence and warmth often found in traditional foods. Itame’s choice to use an old lady solidifies this idea. She seems to be looking for something specific in her food, but seems unable to find it. Could she be looking for the innocence food has lost as Tokyo ascended modern food’s globalized plane?

Itame comically adds to this through his editing. Much like a high-stakes action movie, the scene uses quick cuts in between frames. After all, the store owner is after the bad guy. Using images such as close-ups of the store owner with the old lady quickly moving through the background creates a sort of Bond-esque spy thriller. Disappointingly, the old lady stops when she receives a slap on the hand with a fly swatter. In my opinion, Itame’s chase is not limited to the store owner and the old lady, but the underlying chase of an older Japan and the innocence of the food it once held so dear. A struggle seen clearly in the contradicting nature of high and low culture foods. Nevertheless, Tampopo’s pursuit of ramen, which in its essence is the most basic of Japanese dishes, rekindles this sense of innocence. Ramen is Food that is mutually loved for its sincerity, rather than its adherence to a vision of a global food city.

This struggle between low and high culture foods is the essence of Itame’s film. Whether it is Tampopo herself, or through this very scene, Itame constantly reminds the audience that food is one of the most sincere forms of culture. Losing this could be as devastating to culture as losing a language. In a way, food is language. It speaks through its innocence, its love and even today as a rather dominant form of high culture. Tampopo is not just about how to make ramen, but if it was, I’m pretty sure I would make a pretty good bowl if I was asked…

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