Tampopo: A Celebration in Temporality

Itami Juzo’s Tampopo (1985) is a joyous celebration of food through its many representations in Japanese culture. While in essence, it’s a collection of many seemingly unrelated vignettes, the main plot follows Tampopo in her quest for empowerment, as she seeks to revitalize her late husband’s ramen shop. With the help of Goro, Tampopo rallies up an unlikely team of knowledgeable mentors as she takes on the task to become a bona fide ramen chef in her own right.

Early on, as it becomes evident that Tampopo needs some major help with her soup-making, Goro decides to introduce her to his go-to gourmet, an elderly man who lives in a park with a community of food-loving homeless men. His fellow homeless comrades affectionately call him Sensei, denoting a teacher of sorts. It is revealed that Sensei was once a doctor, but lost everything due to his deep preoccupation with his ramen-making hobby. Despite this tragedy, Sensei, as well as the rest of the gang, appear cheerful and ever-enthusiastic about good food and drink. As sensei accepts the request to help Tampopo with her ramen, the homeless gang gathers together to sing a song of farewell to their beloved teacher. This song happens to be Aogeba tōtoshi, a well-known song that was commonly sung at graduation ceremonies throughout Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

we must part

In this long-distance shot, we see the group of homeless men standing on a flight of outdoor stairs in the dark of night. As they sing in harmonious unison, they are facing up towards Sensei, who is standing atop a platform at the top of the stairs, at the very apex of the shot. He is facing back towards them, smiling benevolently. Next to Sensei stands Goro, then Tampopo’s son, then Tampopo, and they watch on sympathetically as the men sing their sincere gratitudes. The lighting highlights the upper-right part of the screen, as though the spotlight is right on Sensei. This particular shot was taken from the end of the song, which is also the very end of the scene. After the men sing the words, “We must part,” there is a poignant pause in the song, and when they resume into the final line, “Goodbye,” the scene diverts away to a medium-range shot of the gangster, who appears to be overlooking the park scene from his hotel room.

I chose this particular shot, specifically with the words “We must part,” because it elucidates a recurring theme in the film: a parting of ways. There are 4 dynamic instances of farewells in Tampopo, each portraying a different type of human relationship as well as a unique association with food. These include the death of the mother (who cooks her last meal), the death of the gangster, and the departure of Goro at the end of the film. The farewell scene with Sensei not only exhibits the gang’s deep respect for the teacher, but also their awareness of temporality, and the inevitability of an eventual farewell. It also seems to foreshadow the parting of ways between Goro and Tampopo, who share a mentor/student relationship akin to Sensei and his comrades. The thematic relevance of ‘parting ways’ is further signified through the use of urban landscape shots that highlight crossroads, intersections, and passing trains. These shots symbolize the constant coming and going, and the contingent nature of any given encounter in the urban macrocosm. It seems that on a deeper level, Tampopo may be a meditation on impermanence, something we must all face as mortal beings. So too is the act of consuming food an exercise in ephemerality, thus by celebrating it, we are celebrating life itself in all its sensual temporality.

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