Young women learning to eat in western style watch closely as a western diner opposite slurps up his spaghetti loudly.
During the late 1980’s we find Japan in the middle of a period of rapid economic growth which was also marked by a significant social and political shift in favor of western culture, style, and dining habits. Juzo Itami’s classic Tampopo, a spaghetti-western inspired film set in this time period, explores these cultural shifts and provides a humorous and down to earth perspective on the subject of food and it’s social and cultural complexities in this context. A particularly memorable vignette from the movie (pictured above) takes place in an upper scale restaurant where a lesson in western dining etiquette is in progress. A table full of young japanese women tentatively practice with their knives and forks under the strict guidance of an older woman who has apparently already mastered western dining. Surely not an uncommon sight in 1980’s Japan, this scene illustrates the popular desire for westernization as well as the high class attributed to western dining at the time. This scene however, is only one of a small few in the film which deals with “high society”, while the rest of the story features working-class japanese characters and their everyday struggles and pursuits. Itami does this on purpose, portraying these modest individuals as the backbone of japanese society and the bread and butter of the story, while the upper class is limited to short, rather comical episodes which don’t follow along with the main plot but rather appear sporadically throughout the film. The inclusion of these scenes, like the one above, explains Itami’s feelings toward the influx of western culture and, in his playful style, question the Japanese elite’s obsession with western culture. As the older woman in the scene adamantly explains that making noise must be avoided at all costs while eating, her students attention (as well as the foundation of her lesson) is shattered by a loud slurp on the other end of the room. As the camera pans we are suddenly greeted by an unfamiliar western face belonging to a rather stout man in a business suit who is slurping away at his own bowl of spaghetti. Shocked and fascinated, the young women watch and soon begin mimicking his exaggerated slurping. This scene takes the whole idea of the japanese preoccupation with western culture and gently reduces it to absurdity. The image of a table full of formally dressed japanese women visibly doing their best to imitate some chubby western man across the room eating his spaghetti does well to draw forth laughter, and in doing so, this scene effectively sums up Itami’s take on westernization. This restaurant scene is detached from the working class storyline in the same way that Itami feels all this anglophilia is. This scene is integral to the film as a whole because it sums up Itami’s feelings towards the key issue of westernization and reminds the viewer that the real Japanese story isn’t taking place over a plate of spaghetti, but over a bowl of ramen.