Category Archives: tampopo

Food, Sex, and the West in Tampopo

A man and woman share an egg in an intimate embrace

A man and woman share an egg in an intimate embrace

In the Japanese film Tampopo, director Juzo Itami uses food, ramen noodles in particular, to highlight the explosion of new goods and the emergence of a consumer culture during the Bubble Era in Tokyo and the consequential drowning out of long-standing Japanese traditions. The film follows a young Japanese woman, Tampopo, on her quest to turn her small restaurant into the best ramen noodle joint in all Japan. Itami plays on the western genre in conjunction with a salute to ramen noodles and Japanese food in general to emphasis the collision of two opposing cultures. A reoccurring theme that best demonstrates this cultural mingling is food as a driving force in sex.

The above clip is taken from one of the film’s odd sex scenes. In this particular case, a man and a woman are standing in an uncomfortable yet intimate embrace passing an egg between each other’s mouths. With each exchange they grow more and more excited until finally the women breaks the egg between her teeth and lets the yoke run down her chin in a fashion that mocks the overcoming feelings of ecstasy and sexual release experienced after an orgasm. This, without question, was one of the stranger scenes in the film and elicited nervous laughs throughout the class. However, this scene is extremely important in combining the undeniable human need for food for survival with raw sexual desire. Through the use of food as a stimulant, Itami demonstrates that these desires are closely linked and that eating food can bring a person the same deal of pleasure as can a sexual act. Itami also demonstrates that eating should be a celebrated experience that is intended to bring the consumer great satisfaction and happiness.

This scene is also significant in that it represents the complicated relationship between the Western world and Japan during the Showa Era. During this postmodern time, Japan was the world’s second largest economy. This resulted in an overflow of money, people, and goods from overseas into Japan. Because of this explosion of new cultures and ideas, Japan quickly adopted the mentality of “out with the old” in order to remain relevant. The man and women’s intimate sharing of the egg can be interpreted as the unstable and uncomfortable relationship between the West and Japan at this time and their sharing of ideas, goods, and cultures. The man is the West and stands dominate over its Japanese counterpart, as depicted by the woman. However, the relationship grows more equal and intimate as they stand with locked arms and faces pressed together. This represents Japan’s growing importance to the West as it began to emerge as a world super power. The final breaking of the yoke in the woman’s mouth emphasis Japan’s subordinate role to western powers and how it was unable to maintain all of its roots and traditions during this time.

In this way, Itami brings food to the forefront of cultural importance in Japan during the Bubble Era by using it to represent both our primitive desires as well as the fragile yet intimate relationship between Japan and the West.

Tampopo: Combination of Cultures

The Western influence of Japanese food is an important fact that is showcase throughout Itami Juzo’s Tampopo. I believe the most important scene in Tampopo is when Tampopo goes out to place her old ramen flag outside of her new restaurant because this scene really depicts the influence that Western culture has had on Japanese cuisine from the high class French restaurants shown in the beginning of the film to a humble ramen shop next to the road. However, the most important fact is that despite the Western influences, Japanese cuisine or in this case a simple bowl of ramen incorporates aspects of Western culture but is still authentic.

Tampopo putting up her old ramen flag outside her new restaurant.

Tampopo putting up her old ramen flag outside her new restaurant.

The most noticeable change to Tampopo’s restaurant is the design and structure of the shop both exterior and interior. From the exterior, the audience could tell that Tampopo’s restaurant is model after French cafes/restaurants with the fancy logo/writing of the restaurant’s name to the design of the roof. Also, unlike the middle of the Tampopo, where Goro writes Tampopo’s new restaurant’s name “タンポポ” (Tampopo) in Katakana, a component of Japanese writing system, it is now written in English in fancy gold letters. Yet, Tampopo putting up her old ramen flag shows that although she is adapting/incorporating Western idea’s into her restaurant, she is still true to the Japanese aspects of her restaurant. This same flag that is shown in the beginning of the film in Tampopo’s restaurant and her new one indicates that Tampopo’s ramen stays true to its Japanese culture instead of complete emulating Western cuisines. The exterior of Tampopo’s store symbolizes how modern Japanese culture is a combination of both Japanese and Western ideals how these things could coexist instead of one over powering the other. Tampopo’s store has the design of a French restaurant, yet the traditional old ramen flag symbolizes just how much modern Japanese cuisine/culture is a mixture of both Western modernism and traditional Japanese culture. That being one doesn’t mean you lose the other.

Tampopo staring to serve customers as they walk in.

Tampopo staring to serve customers as they walk in.

The interior of Tampopo’s store has been remodel to look similar to any other ramen shop instead with aspects of Western ideas here and there. For example, how bright the room is compare to Tampopo’s old restaurant, the cash register at the corner, the frames of paper on the wall, that is what I think food certifications which is usually found in stores now a days, the wooden counter tops, and even the Tampopo’s chief’s outfit are aspects of Western ideas in her store.  These items help make Tampopo’s store look like a sophisticated ramen shop where as her old traditional looking made it look like an everyday neighborhood shop. Though Tampopo has changed the appearance of her shop the layout of the shop is the same. The open counter to the chief to create a friendly atmosphere is still there so that the chief could welcome a new customer, which is an aspect of Japanese culture. This high class look, yet friendly atmosphere combines the Western and Japanese aspect of restaurant culture perfectly which of course leads to Tampopo’s success.

 

Tampopo as Modern Ubasuteyama

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Park, Modern Ubasuteyama

The scene where Tampopo meets the group of homeless represents the important theme of Tampopo; Nostalgia towards ‘Ninjyô (人情, humanity)’.

This scene starts by showing the low social status of homeless men by using a shot from Tampopo’s view, that represents the view of society, and locating the homeless men on the lower part of the screen. In addition, the dark lighting strengthen the feeling of homeless men as ‘Hikagemono (日陰者, Shade-People)’. The scene also shows the natural attitude of Japanese people toward these men by showing the facial expression of Tampopo who first hesitates getting to know them. The dimension of Tampopo as an average Japanese adult at that time also shows that Tampopo is not merely saint but a human.

Although the homeless men are written as socially lower rank, their emotional relationships are highly valued. For example, when Sensei parts from the homeless group to be a master of Tampopo, they sing the traditional Japanese graduation song. This song shows the strong bond between homless men, and possibly stimulates the audiences’ nostalgia by reminding them their schooldays. In the end of the scene, there is a transition using the swipe of the camera from the dark park to the bright tall hotel. On one hand, the contrast shows the social hierarchy of Yakuza and homeless. However, on the other hand the scene shows the reversal of ethical hierarchy between them by comparing the heartwarming homeless with the moral corruption of Yakuza in the following scene.

Furthermore, homeless have sophisticated knowledge on cuisine, which creates ambiguity on their low status. Although they might be ‘useless’ in the context of social life, as Goro rely on them, they have huge roles in local life. This usefulness of the ‘useless’ people recalls ‘Goinkyo ご隠居)’, or old man, in old Japanese literature. Since Goinkyo usually refer to retired old men, they would be regarded useless in the generation of mass production; nevertheless, they used to be respected because of their knowledge and experience. Itami utilizes the traditional image of the Goinkyo as old teacher to question the new value that disregards such people by judging them by their productivity.

In Conclusion, this scene seems to be Itami’s verison of the old fable, ‘Ubasuteyama’. Itami uses the encounter with the homless scene to emphasize his idea of nostalgia towards the old Japanese local community that entreasured humanity, respected the old, and allowed the somewhat outsiders to be included in the society, and criticize the society of mass consumption that destroyed the bond between people.

The New Tampopo Ramen Shop: Symbol of The Spirit of Japanese Reform

In my opinion, the scene in which Tampopo’s new ramen shop opens up is the most important scene in the whole movie, not only because it presents the achievement of Tampopo with the help of Goro and his friends, but also because it implies the spirit of Japanese reform under Western influence: accepting the Western culture, but keeping the Japanese essential, and developing Japan’s own unique hybrid culture.

The scene starts with a low-angle shot of Tampopo’s Ramen shop’s building, with a dandelion painted on the white wall. The Ramen shop is in fact just a two-story or three-story bungalow, however the long-angle shot makes it appear larger like a mansion, which indicates the new status of the ramen shop – it’s no longer just a run-down restaurant, but a new unique shop that will attract customers.

Then the camera shifts to Goro and his friends who helped Tampopo, being fascinated by the new appearance of the shop. The low-angle close-up here depicts their expression very well, and shows how incredible the new building looks to them as their mouths open, making “wow” sounds.

Tampopo in her new restaurant

Tampopo in her new restaurant

The fellows cheer and enter the shop, and Tampopo, the heroine in the movie, becomes the center of attention. As the screenshot shows, aside from Tampopo’s new attire, the entire shop is refurnished into a western style. The wall is now white, with clear glass skylight. All the bowls and plates are changed into white, and the counter and chairs are changed to a modern western style. A clear glass jar with fresh flowers and a modern-styled telephone are put on the modern counter. Pots and pans are now hanged orderly at back wall, and even the seasoning jars are switched to modern-styled glass ones. Together with Tampopo’s master chef attire, the new Tampopo Ramen shop looks like – instead of a traditional cheap Japanese ramen shop – an high-class and expensive Italian Restaurant.

And this is where the spirit of Japanese reform comes in. Tampopo has accepted the new changes that makes her shop better, including making the shop modern and western-styled. However, the essential of the restaurant is still ramen, the old, “ordinary” Japanese food. This spirit is expressed more explicitly as Tampopo goes out of the restaurant and hangs her old “RAMEN” label onto the white western-styled front door.

In the first half of the scene as the fellows are visiting Tampopo before the shop opens, an elegant waltz melody is played in the background, which creates a cheerful and light-hearted atmosphere. Then as customers begin to flow inside, the melody changes to a somewhat symphony-like style then variates into the theme melody of the movie, which shows that the goal of the story has been accomplished, and this is the happy finale of the story. As Goro steps out of the restaurant, he sees a line forming for the restaurant, and the line consists of people from different class: students, office workers, foreign businessmen, builders… This mise-en-scene not only shows the success of Tampopo’s restaurant, but also represents the success of Japanese reform: creating their own hybrid culture, and making it attractive and accessible to people from all parts of the society around the world.

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.

Tampopo: A Ramen Western

Tampopo, a Japanese food comedy with a twist on the classic, Spaghetti Western, is a light-hearted story about a single working-class mother striving to perfect her ramen recipe and revive her ramen shop. The director, Juzo Itami, utilizes food as a way of connecting issues occurring in late 1980s Japan. In particular, he focuses on ramen and overturning conventions. Ramen normally is seen as a comfort food, mostly eaten on cold, winter nights alone. However, Itami shows that ramen can also promote a sense of community and home. With ramen, he brings together the protagonist, Tampopo and Goro, along with his friend, Gun. Although, Gun and Goro are constantly traveling in their truck, they stop to teach Tampopo the art of making the perfect ramen.

This scene, in which Goro and Gun encounter Tampopo and her son for the first time and start a fight with a group of men, is the scene that I think is the most important. Not only because it starts the relationship between the protagonists, but also because of the fight scene that exemplifies Tampopo to be a self-proclaimed, ramen western.

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Goro and Gun on their long journey.

In the scene, Goro and Gun stop by Tampopo’s ramen shop after their long journey on the road for a bite to eat. Elements of old Western films are seen as Gun seems to act as Goro’s sidekick and the fact that they are on the road, however not on horses like in traditional western films, but in a truck. The medium shot that is shown in the screen shot above depicts Goro and Gun through their heavily rained- on truck window. The book that Gun holds could mean that they have been traveling for quite a long time. From their attire, they appear to be of lower class and the hat that Goro wears is also symbolic of the West.

 

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The gang leader is hit in the face by a naruto.

The scene continues as the duo enters Tampopo’s ramen shop and encounters a group of men who harass Tampopo. The leader of the group, as shown above, irritates Goro to the point where Goro flicks a piece of naruto (cured fish often served in ramen) at his face. The close-up shot of this at a somewhat low angle shows the emotional approach of the action. It makes the scene a lot more emphasized as well as comedic and dramatic, especially when the piece of naruto is stuck on his face. Goro demonstrates heroism in this scene, another element in Western movies, when they choose to start a fight with the harassers soon after.

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Tampopo and her son watch the fight from their ramen shop.

The fight is taken outside the ramen shop where in this shot, Tampopo and her son are huddled together watching the fight from their shop. It is interesting how the main action was not shown and the director wanted to focus on the emotions of Tampopo and her son instead. Itami probably wanted to illustrate the importance of family and community as a sort of precursor to the audience in the beginning of the movie.

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.

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 and the employee

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I think the shot above in Tampopo is one of the most important scenes. It reveals the social hierarchy and the etiquette for a business meeting by an employee, indicating an analogy to the situation that Tampopo faces in her Ramen restaurant. Through the comparison of the shot and rest of the movie, the employee and Tampopo are similar in three ways. They share comparatively similar social status; their lack of ability impedes their self-development or adaptation to the society; however, their destination is not determined by where they start.

At first, others do not treat people with low social status politely. In this shot, the supervisor drags the employee from the back rudely, suggesting that the employee is not of the same social level as him and the others. Tampopo as its name is an ordinary person. Her restaurant is also a “Tampopo”, comparing with the fancy French restaurant – “Sakura”. As the employee, at the beginning of the movie, Tampopo is flirted by an uncultivated guy. Therefore, can we conclude that “small people” are not being respected in Japanese society simply because they are “small”?

The employee and Tampopo both show a lack of knowledge of the their fields and their responsibilities. People in the scene are apparently of various ages. According to the etiquette in Japan, the elder or those with higher social status should seat first and usually farthest from the door. The small employee, the youngest with lowest status in the room, should seat after everyone else, but he seems to be unfamiliar with this convention. Tampopo owns an unpopular Ramen restaurant because she almost knows nothing about how to make proper Ramen and how to offer customers with the best service. For me, Tampopo is not a responsible owner and chef. Not only because her insufficiency of knowledge, but also she does not even have the desire to improve her work before the advent of Guro. The coming of Guro is a present from god. Tampopo is always waiting for the present to come by itself and never go to find it actively.

However, later in the movie, “small people” are elevated. The employee humiliates the other men by his mastery of French and French cuisine even though the others try to pretend that they make their serious decisions of the meal after thinking for a while. Under the rigorous training of Guro, Tampopo improves her proficiency in making Ramen and learns how to get feedback by customers’ facial expression and gestures. With Tampopo’s constant efforts, she finally succeeds.

The former inferiority of “small people” partly shown in the shot gives a contrast to their latter success. On the contrary, the arrogant are ashamed later in the movie. In my point of view, director uses those plots to convey that people are all equal. Even “small people” can have dreams and succeed. What one used to be does not decrease any chances of having a nice future.

Since Tampopo is a comedy, it can show a happy ending that might not be able to happen in the real world. The happy ending in the movie is another contrast with the hardship in out real life. In Japan, does “small people” really have a great chance to achieve upward movement?

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.