Itami Juzo’s 1985 Tampopo presents the story of a widowed mother trying to save a failing noodle stand. The film contains a great deal of small narratives that ultimately compose the entire story. Itami uses food as a focal point to illustrate and even satirize social issues within Japan, including class distinctions and the Westernization of Japanese culture.
The opening scene of the film portrays an older, presumably wise man instructing his young pupil on the art of ramen consumption. All of the following scenes build off of the seeds planted by this introduction, making this the single most important scene in the film. First and foremost, this scene introduces food as the focal point of the film. Itami centered this film on food because it plays a key role in numerous aspects of many different societies, and can be used as a jumping off point to introduce discussion of different aspects of society at large.
Itami also introduces another major point of this film in the opening scene: challenging the social status quo. The food being consumed in this opening scene is ramen. Ramen has traditionally been regarded as common food, with no special or significant value attached to it. This is what makes the ritual of ramen eating portrayed within the scene so strange; there is no justification for, or history of, such theatrics for consumption of lowly ramen. By rethinking tradition in the opening scene of the movie, Itami sets the stage for this to be repeated throughout the film. This is evident with the scene in which the young businessman does not follow the example of his superiors and instead orders a high-culture French dish.
The portrayal of the ramen eating ritual also serves two other very important roles. The first is that it elevates the status of ramen within the minds of the audience, which is vital if the audience is to be drawn into the film. If ramen is viewed as a lowly, common food as it traditionally is outside of the film, then there would be no need for Tampopo’s ramen shop to elevate the quality with ramen. The audience, along with the other characters in the film, would be satisfied with mediocre ramen because it is a mediocre meal. By elevating ramen to a form of art, Itami creates a need for the restaurant to elevate the quality of noodle. The second of these is that it gives Goro the expertise to properly critique Tampopo’s ramen, and guide the shop to a heightened level of success. Goro’s knowledge of the art of ramen allows the audience to believe he is capable of passing on his knowledge of ramen to Tampopo.
Itami continually uses food in many different ways as a tool to disrupt the traditional status quo within Tampopo. He accomplishes this not only by using food to directly illustrate his point, but also as a framework to use other methods and build characters. The introductory scene serves as a building block on which all of Itami’s arguments are built. Without this scene, the movie would lose all merit, and suffer from both a lack of substance and an inability to portray a believable story to the audience.