Category Archives: Itami Juzo

Tampopo’s Success

The "masters" enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

The “masters” enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a bubble era film about an amateur ramen chef, Tampopo, striving to cook the perfect bowl of ramen. Yet, it is more than that. Along with Tampopo’s main plot, interwoven vignettes demonstrate the various messages Itami conveys in his film: satire of the materialism during the bubble era, nostalgia of the past, the breaking barriers and the establishment of new ones, and the importance of food and its role in establishing bonds, among others. The film’s climax, the moment when Tampopo succeeds in her quest for perfection, encompasses all of those central themes.

The satire of the new materialism of the 1980’s, although not obvious, is present in this pivotal scene. Throughout the shot, there are many close-ups of Tampopo’s anxious face, clearly indicating how much her “master’s” opinion of her ramen means to her. She looks like she is about to cry; that is how important this immaterial judgment means to her. The alternating light and dark lighting as well as the orchestral music further create the tense, heavy mood. This significance of ramen, and food in general, throughout the movie contrasts sharply to the emphasis placed on material objects during the ‘80’s. As Japan moved forward to become a modern country, people looked away from the small things of the past and left them behind. However, Itami’s focus on the everyday miracle of food points out Japan’s gradual abandonment of its traditions and expresses nostalgia for the past.

Ironically, Itami’s film also encourages progress and the breaking of barriers while creating new ones. The various vignettes, such as the manners lesson and the gangster’s inventive way to enjoy food with his lover, demonstrate different aspects of culture. The success of Tampopo also illustrates the breaking of boundaries. The old homeless master notes at the end of the scene that he never expected a woman to become a noodle chef, yet Tampopo has done just that. This is also juxtaposed to the fact that all her “masters” are male. She has broken down an old traditional barrier and has become an independent, successful woman, creating a modern social norm.

However, Itami’s focus on food is not just to support incorporation of the past and future, but also to emphasize the importance of food because of its role in establishing bonds. Throughout the film, this theme is constantly apparent, from the homeless’ union over food to the gangster and his lover’s unusual enjoyment of food. This is also apparent in the snapshot. The bright lighting, as well as the close-up of Tampopo’s tearful celebration, clearly demonstrates the importance of this scene. All five men, all with completely different backgrounds- a trucker and his sidekick, a homeless man, a butler, and a thug- all have come together for the sake of ramen. In the snapshot, all men are doing the same thing: enjoying a delicious bowl of ramen.

Tampopo’s triumph in creating the perfect ramen is not just a private, personal achievement, but she also succeeds in creating a food over which strangers from infinite walks of life can come together and bond.

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Tampopo Asks a Favor

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Tampopo goes to Goro’s truck to ask him to be her teacher.

The scene from Tampopo where Tampopo goes out to Goro’s truck to beg him to teach her how to be a noodle cook is the most important in the film, because it is the beginning of Tampopo’s journey to becoming a better chef and restaurant owner. It also highlights the level of importance that should be placed on Tampopo and Goro, with the use of low-angle and high-angle shots. In this particular screen shot, the high-angle shot looks down on Tampopo. This emphasizes her lowliness, which is important because Itami uses Tampopo to make a statement about the status of food. Tampopo is humble, like her ramen, and not afraid to ask for Goro’s help. The next shot after this screenshot is a low-angle shot of Goro, which emphasizes his importance in the rest of the movie. Although this scene is short, and seems simple, the cinematography helps viewers feel how much Tampopo wants Goro’s help, especially at the end of the scene when Itami chooses a closeup on Tampopo.

This scene is culturally significant because Itami’s female characters are usually more independent and powerful. By having his female protagonist be more meager, Itami mixes things up from what is expected from him, just like with the rest of the film. This scene connects both Tampopo and Goro to the ramen, when Tampopo says that meeting Goro made her want to become a better noodle cook. This connection sets the rest of the film in motion, and shows that food can connect people and form community, as Goro bonds with Tampopo’s son and the other men that help her. This scene shows an interesting form of intimacy – the intimacy between a student and a teacher, as opposed to the usual romantic confusion that would be happening at this point in other films.

Another cultural point is made through Itami’s highlight of Goro with the low-angle shot. It reinforces a common Western theme of male supremacy. Showing Tampopo’s inferiority is a way for Itami to set up the rest of the movie. At this point, nobody believes in her. Even the camera thinks she is lowly, while Goro is there to save the day. Tampopo is also connected to other characters, like the young employee in the French restaurant, through her portrayal as a humble creature.

Although there is no food in the scene itself, the moment when Tampopo asks for Goro’s help is the most important in the film because it shows the statuses of Tampopo and Goro, connects them to ramen and food in general, and helps readers connect to Tampopo through the use of emotional closeup.

Tampopo – A Metaphor of Humble Beginnings

The young man "learns" how to eat ramen.

The young man wonders… all this for some noodles?

As Goro and Gun ride along in the truck at the beginning of the movie, we get a glimpse into a book being read. The scene in particular is of an old master of sorts essentially teaching a younger man how to exactly eat a bowl of ramen. This man has studied noodles for over 40 years. He goes into explicit detail of how the bowl should be observed, and the gestalt and aromas from the bowl should be appreciated. Every detail from the fat in the bowl to the sinking seaweed is described elegantly. This is not what one would not think of while eating an ordinary bowl of ramen. The fact that something so cheap or ordinary could be turned into something as beautiful as it is described is an underlying theme of Tampopo.

Essentially, this scene sets the stage for the story to become a sort of metaphor for beauty and elegance emerging from humble beginnings. In the old master’s bowl of ramen, pork is treated as a sacred delight, to be caressed and given affection. Revealed, is a correct way to consume what is generally considered a food for commoners. With an understanding of this metaphor, we can look at the rest of the film and appreciate how greatness can arise from practice, dedication, and learned skills.

We see Tampopo herself, unskilled, and with undesirable food. She tries, and longs to become a great chef, but ultimately falls flat. However, with her attitude and conviction to become the very best, we once again see something magnificent coming out of something with a humble beginning. Essentially, she is studying service techniques and the preparation of delicious food. Her practice turns quickly into passion, and the humble beginning she comes from turns into a glorious and respected career as a true gourmet ramen chef.

Much like the old master’s process, or trial, of eating ramen, Tampopo endured some trials of her own, including the many times she’s failed. The aspect of humble beginnings in the movie has a lot to do with experience. The man in the beginning stares in awe and wonder at the master, who is telling an entire narrative with his bowl of noodles. We can call that narrative an experience. It takes time, care, and love to appreciate all of the flavors that the bowl has to offer much like it takes those aspects to become a master of something such food in the first place. Tampopo’s trials came in the form of time, care, and love, and each had to be mastered to become a respected ramen chef just as they had to be mastered to fully enjoy the bowl of ramen in the beginning.

The theme presented here is universal. Greatness can emerge from the lowliest of chefs, so long as the effort and dedication is put in. Even a regular old bowl of ramen can be turned into something magnificent.

Cook with Joy

Screenshot of Omelette Rice-Cooking

The homeless man is frying rice for the omelette rice dish. The speed of frying is so fast that the screen cannot really take it clearly in one frame.

In the movie Tampopo, the heroine, Tampopo, goes to a group of homeless men to invite their sensei to teach her cooking. During the invitation talk, a homeless man and Tampopo’s son, Tabo, sneak into a kitchen. The man cooks omelet rice for Tabo. The scene of making omelet rice is important because it is the first time the film introduces cooking as something desirable and joyful. Before this scene, Tampopo struggles with cooking and considers it as a way to make a living. The scene marks a turning point where Tampopo changes her attitude towards cooking.

The sneaking results in suspense, so that the audience are surprised by the next scene. This surprise can make a deeper impression on the viewers. When the homeless man and Tabo sneak into a door, the camera takes a bird’s-eye shot, reminding viewers of their identity as outsiders. The shot angle evokes viewer’s desire to look into the door. Thus, when a kitchen shows up on the screen, the homeless man astonishes viewers with his attempt to cook, which leads to more curiosity on how he cooks. Since the scene of the homeless man cooking is the consequence of the sneaking scene, the latter is an amazing start for the crucial part of the former.

As the man starts cooking, the entry of a guard and stealthy background music invoke tension, adding more spice to the cooking. The camera shoots the guard from the front with a slightly low angle. The approaching posture of the guard makes the music rhythm sound faster, causing accumulated tension.

In contrast, the man pays no attention to the risk of getting caught. The frame I choose is the scene where the homeless man fries the rice. It is difficult to keep everything in the pot, not to mention flipping the food in the pot. However, the homeless man does it calmly without hesitation. The screen is filled with a top view of the frying rice, focusing completely on the food and nothing else. This bird eye’s shot of the pot therefore fulfilled the audience’s mind with cooking. The characters and viewers all seem so captivated by the cooking that the guard is not important any more. The existence of guard sets off the concentration of the homeless man and viewers on the cooking. The situation that viewers are so immersive in the cooking scene demonstrates how much they enjoy the cooking, not to mention the homeless man himself.

The homeless group in Tampopo is so unique. Compared to the general definition of the homeless people, who have no home, and, in fact, have nothing, this homeless group do not need anything else, because food enlightens and enriches their life. They enjoy food, and they understand the art of cooking. On the other hand, Tampopo, in a better financial situation, is tortured by the disastrous soup she makes during her research on Ramen before going to the homeless men. At that point, she had no idea how pleasant cooking can be; cooking for her is only a way of making a living. However, things change after Tabo, returning from the journey of cooking omelet rice secretly, and Sensei, who teaches the homeless men how to enjoy cook, joins Tampopo. Hence, this scene is important as it changes Tampopo’s cooking ideology. Rather than merely cooking to make money and support life, she learn to cook with Joy.

Tampopo: A lesson on Moral Values

The Chase Ensues

In this now infamous scene of Itami Juzo’s 1985 film Tampopo, we follow a seemingly harmless old lady on a late night excursion to the local supermarket, but quickly realize this particular customer is far from typical. As she enters the store, the scene becomes void of music and dialogue; we are drawn closer into the scene and are acquainted with her real intentions. As she pokes her way through the aisles, we are captivated by her obsession with the store’s most malleable of items.  Immersed in the delight of her exploits, she catches the eye of the supermarket’s sole proprietor and is feverishly stalked like a rodent. Reminiscent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the two are left battling over control of the supermarket’s merchandise.  Lost in her exploits and unable to control her insatiable infatuation with food, the store clerk is finally able to close width and destroy this parasitic intruder with a swift wallop from his fly swatter.

Confused yet intrigued, we the audience, are left contemplating the allegorical mystery Itami Juzo reveals in this short and profound scene. Questions arise – Is he ridiculing Japanese consumerism and commodity fetishism? Is this a statement about eroticism? Or does it delve deeper into religion and the four pillars of human impulse: food, sex, sleep and self-preservation? It is hard to say for sure, but each of the aforementioned questions can be plausible if scrutinized hard enough. Maybe that in itself is the purpose of this scene, to have us question the questionable.

As we are inundated with information in our daily lives, we must coherently choose between what is right and wrong. We must resist our impulses and  make educated decisions. Essentially, we reap the fruits of our actions and these fruits motivate future actions. A moral dilemma ensues; do we succumb to our primitive urges, quench our lustful cravings, become coerced by fashionable trends or follow our moral compass?

If our actions were governed by our insatiable desire to consume and replenish, we would lose sight of the value of life.  We ourselves would be consumed by gluttony and become morally and spiritually bankrupt. Principally, we would be transformed into parasites, aimlessly dashing about, ravaging the landscape in an attempt to satisfy our voracious appetite for the exotic, self-fulfilling and fashionable. The old lady in the supermarket is just like this, a rodent pilfering the store, haphazardly moving from item to item, leaving a trail of waste in her wake only to eventually be eradicated by the store clerk. She is our internal struggle, our true desire, as old as time itself, genetically imbedded into our existence. The store clerk is our moral obligation to suppress those desires and fall in line with societal values; those common laws that govern what is right and what is wrong.

In this scene Itami Juzo is merely immortalizing this struggle and addressing a common issue that afflicts us all, regardless of social ranking or cultural origin.  As a whole, this film is a sophisticated cinematic portrayal of the timeless battle between good and evil. Almost every scene, relationship and character possesses this moral undertone. Essentially, this is his way of tutoring us on life’s eternal struggle – a human struggle as inhabitants of two worlds, one both internal and external.