Tampopo, a Juzo Itami film centered on Japanese cuisine, uses a series of interconnected vignettes to tell the tale of a small ramen shop. As a step away from the norm, Itami’s film features many common historical movie themes such as the Spaghetti Western and Yakuza, and portrays their styles in a humorous light. The film’s many short scenes each tell a separate story with their own respective meanings, yet all are tied to the central theme of food culture. The opening scene in Tampopo establishes, through tongue-in-cheek humor and thoughtful cinematography, a feeling of appreciation and intimate respect for the humble bowl of ramen that spans the entire film.
As the first vignette in the film, the scene from Gun’s book truly sets the tone of lighthearted humor. The classic sensei and apprentice relationship is parodied by the master’s uncharacteristic display of affection towards a mere bowl of food. “Apologize to the pork by saying… see you soon,” the old man whispers; rather than stiff, logical advice regarding noodle consumption, he is encouraging intimacy with the dish (particularly the pork) by speaking in a tone typically reserved for a lover. This personifies the meal and establishes one of Itami’s main goals with Tampopo– to elevate the cultural status of ramen.
The master instructs his apprentice on the proper way to appreciate ramen.
The vignette’s mise-en-scène also adds to the ridiculously intimate atmosphere surrounding the meal. The humor of the scene is apparent, both in dialogue and action; the old man caresses the pork in a fashion bordering on foreplay whilst whispering sweet nothings into the meat’s proverbial ear. Clearly the man holds ramen in a high regard, and as sensei he is instilling this same appreciation in his apprentice, as if teaching an important life lesson. As the sensei verbally details the complexity of each ingredient, the camera’s slow vertical rise over the bowl shows off each highlighted part, further adding to the food’s appeal.
Tampopo’s initial scene goes beyond simply displaying a man’s affection for noodles; it introduces the theme of a greater appreciation for ramen, a food that is commonly deemed antiquated or unsophisticated. Itami uses the lighthearted parody of his film to convey this idea in a way that is both appealing and impactful. He argues that ramen is a complex, artistic delicacy that is far from simple; it requires technique to produce and mastery to create the perfect bowl. This complexity also spans the social structure surrounding ramen, where one can observe a chef’s pursuit to perfect their own recipe, or a consumer’s relationship with a restaurant or even the ramen itself as they become a regular customer. All of these ideas are introduced in the opening exchange between the master and apprentice ramen eaters- the scene sets the stage for the entirety of the film with its humorous emphasis on ramen’s complexity.