Tag Archives: film

Tampopo: A Celebration in Temporality

Itami Juzo’s Tampopo (1985) is a joyous celebration of food through its many representations in Japanese culture. While in essence, it’s a collection of many seemingly unrelated vignettes, the main plot follows Tampopo in her quest for empowerment, as she seeks to revitalize her late husband’s ramen shop. With the help of Goro, Tampopo rallies up an unlikely team of knowledgeable mentors as she takes on the task to become a bona fide ramen chef in her own right.

Early on, as it becomes evident that Tampopo needs some major help with her soup-making, Goro decides to introduce her to his go-to gourmet, an elderly man who lives in a park with a community of food-loving homeless men. His fellow homeless comrades affectionately call him Sensei, denoting a teacher of sorts. It is revealed that Sensei was once a doctor, but lost everything due to his deep preoccupation with his ramen-making hobby. Despite this tragedy, Sensei, as well as the rest of the gang, appear cheerful and ever-enthusiastic about good food and drink. As sensei accepts the request to help Tampopo with her ramen, the homeless gang gathers together to sing a song of farewell to their beloved teacher. This song happens to be Aogeba tōtoshi, a well-known song that was commonly sung at graduation ceremonies throughout Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

we must part

In this long-distance shot, we see the group of homeless men standing on a flight of outdoor stairs in the dark of night. As they sing in harmonious unison, they are facing up towards Sensei, who is standing atop a platform at the top of the stairs, at the very apex of the shot. He is facing back towards them, smiling benevolently. Next to Sensei stands Goro, then Tampopo’s son, then Tampopo, and they watch on sympathetically as the men sing their sincere gratitudes. The lighting highlights the upper-right part of the screen, as though the spotlight is right on Sensei. This particular shot was taken from the end of the song, which is also the very end of the scene. After the men sing the words, “We must part,” there is a poignant pause in the song, and when they resume into the final line, “Goodbye,” the scene diverts away to a medium-range shot of the gangster, who appears to be overlooking the park scene from his hotel room.

I chose this particular shot, specifically with the words “We must part,” because it elucidates a recurring theme in the film: a parting of ways. There are 4 dynamic instances of farewells in Tampopo, each portraying a different type of human relationship as well as a unique association with food. These include the death of the mother (who cooks her last meal), the death of the gangster, and the departure of Goro at the end of the film. The farewell scene with Sensei not only exhibits the gang’s deep respect for the teacher, but also their awareness of temporality, and the inevitability of an eventual farewell. It also seems to foreshadow the parting of ways between Goro and Tampopo, who share a mentor/student relationship akin to Sensei and his comrades. The thematic relevance of ‘parting ways’ is further signified through the use of urban landscape shots that highlight crossroads, intersections, and passing trains. These shots symbolize the constant coming and going, and the contingent nature of any given encounter in the urban macrocosm. It seems that on a deeper level, Tampopo may be a meditation on impermanence, something we must all face as mortal beings. So too is the act of consuming food an exercise in ephemerality, thus by celebrating it, we are celebrating life itself in all its sensual temporality.

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Tampopo: Food Before Death

Juzo Itami’s 1985 film, Tampopo, tells the story of a widow who receives help from a stranger in improving the quality of noodles she serves in her modest noodle establishment. Itami doesn’t choose to merely focus on this woman’s transformation. He includes various short scenes that are often not related in any way, but include the mention or use of food in various contexts.

One of the scenes in Tampopo takes the audience to the home of a man with a dying wife. The camera follows the man as he rushes home to his family. The man urges his wife to get and up and “do something”, and follows it up with demanding dinner. Despite her weak state, she obliges. She prepares a bowl of rice and the family devours it eagerly. The wife smiles at the sight of her family enjoying her meal, and then dies.

At the start of the scene, the audience is feeling concerned for the future of the family. This feeling is heightened as the scene progresses. The wife is lying limp on the ground and the theme of food makes its appearance when husband tells her to get up and prepare food in a desperate attempt to keep her from dying. As she cooks, the children begin to set the table as though nothing happened, as though their mother had not been laying on her deathbed a moment ago. We catch a glimpse of the role that food has in the family’s daily routine. Food is able to bring the family together and act as a stabilizing force, even in the most stressful times. The husband demands his wife to make dinner in an attempt to again bring forth the sense of routine and togetherness that he knows cannot be maintained if his wife passes away.

Wife smiling as her family eats the last meal she prepared for them

The frame I’ve chosen from the scene encompasses the sincere happiness that providing food for someone can bring. The woman’s husband messily stuffs the food in his mouth telling his wife how delicious it is. The camera closes up on the wife’s face. The smile she has is genuine and she looks nothing but happy to see that her family is enjoying her meal. With this, Itami is successful in not only touching the audience, but showing the ability of food to form a connection between people. Just the sight of her family enjoying her food has made her smile before her death. The children and husband begin to cry, but the husband tells the kids to eat the meal while it’s hot because it’s their mother’s last meal. It is strange to see that the husband seemingly is more concerned with the food than his dead wife, but the meal symbolizes the last stable moment the family will likely have together before they have to confront the realities of the wife’s death. The food prepared by their mother holds significance in that it was the last thing she provided for them; it is what brought them together.

Tampopo: The Power of Comfort Food in Forging Personal and Communal Bonds

In the bubble era ramen western, Tampopo, Itami Juzo depicts Tampopo’s journey to have the best ramen shop in the city. The structure of the film is interesting in that seemingly unrelated vignettes related to food are interspersed between scenes of this overarching plot. This screenshot is from the scene in which a husband sees his wife on her death bed. In an attempt to revive her, he orders her to go make dinner for their family. Surprisingly, the wife recuperates and shakily cooks a pot of fried rice. After serving her family, she dies with a smile on her face; glad that her last act was spent satisfying her family’s culinary needs. I believe this scene is one of the most significant because it stresses the power of comfort food in forging personal and communal bonds.

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A family enjoys the last meal made by their dying mother.

 

Analyzing the mise en scene, the mother is the closest to the camera, signifying her important role in feeding her family. Her family is captured in a medium shot at eye level. This angle allows the audience to sympathize and connect more with the family’s emotions. The family clearly indicates their gratitude, since both the husband and his little girl are gazing at their dying mother in admiration. The scene also features the train motif, which foreshadows the mother’s transition from life to death.

This vignette parallels Tampopo’s story in that they both feature lowly, humble foods. This movie was released when Tokyo was in the process of becoming a global city. This process gave rise to a postmodernism ideology, in which people believed that it was in society’s best interest to constantly throw out old things and focus on the future. This post-modernist perspective was strongly emphasized in Japanese culture. With food, Japan emulated French haute cuisine during this time period. Therefore, Itami chose to feature the lowly ramen and fried rice dishes to enhance the cultural status of traditional Japanese comfort foods and prevent those aspects of their culture from being thrown away. This scene builds upon the idea that beautiful concepts such as love and familial bonds can be produced from humble beginnings.

This scene also highlights Itami’s idea of female social roles in Japan. In Tampopo, he features several women as nurturing, food providers. For example, in this screen shot, the mother is literally on her death bed, yet she manages to recover enough strength to create a delicious family style meal and serve her family. In this final act, she manages to not only nourish her family, but also give them hope that she might survive. The act of nourishing her family also allows her mental state to be at peace with her death. She dies with the satisfaction of knowing she has given her kin the pleasure and biological nourishment that comes with food. The profound, multi-layered sentiment connected to providing food is echoed in Tampopo and the breast-feeding mother at the end of the movie.

I Don’t Want Any of This: Food and Relationships in One Million Yen Girl

In the 2008 film, One Million Yen Girl, food is used throughout the movie to represent Suzuko’s willful disconnection with her family as well as most of the rest of society.  The story begins as Suzuko is released from prison.  She retaliated to the inadvertent killing of a cat she took in by throwing away all of her roommate’s belongings.  This earns her a prison sentence, but upon her release Suzuko’s parents decide to make a nice big meal for the family.

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[Suzuko’s parents prepare a large dinner for the family, back together after Suzuko’s time in prison. But Suzuko waits, apparently indecisive as to whether she can accept the meal and the support as well as the dependency it represents]

Suzuko quietly refrains from eating, but slowly starts to sip on soup.  She does not seem to be sure whether or not she wants to accept what her family is offering her.  Of course, the meaning of the scene extends to more than the food itself.  Her parents want to provide her with the “nutrition” she needs.  Finally, apparently deciding that she can accept this, she begins to make a hand roll, but her younger brother interrupts.  He yells at her that she shouldn’t have come back.  She explains her plans to leave once she saves up a million yen.  Suzuko then leaves the table, the roll still lying on her plate.

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[Suzuko storms off after the confrontation with her brother. Out of the massive amount of food on the table, she has only taken a few sips of soup]

True to her word, Suzuko leaves home after saving up a million yen.  She then travels from town to town, repeating the saving and leaving process and making and abandoning relationships as she does.  Scene after scene shows her eating little or nothing at all as those around her happily devour their meals.  She is choosing not to sustain herself, neither with food nor with relationships, more than is necessary for survival.  Suzuko’s relationship with food in this film reminds me of what food represents in Vibrator.  While Suzuko is not poisoning herself with alcohol or rejecting the food she does take in, she is still refusing the sustenance provided by food, as well as the emotional sustenance those offering the food keep trying to provide.

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[Suzuko sits shyly in the corner eating nothing as the others eat, drink, and laugh]

When Suzuko finally finds someone she thinks she can trust, he betrays her badly by borrowing money to date another girl.  She confronts him once she has saved up a million yen, and decides yet again to leave.

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[Suzuko asks her lover to explain why he lovers her, upon each answer, she responds “And?” Suzuko cannot accept what he has to offer, neither love nor iced tea.]

We get a sense that she has grown, however.  At the end of the movie we see her buying a donut, a food clearly made for pleasure.  Perhaps this donut represents the ephemeral pleasure she found in her relationship, which was also “sweet” but not “healthy.”  Perhaps, sometimes, the thing that we need to motivate us is not the small, bland, healthy option, but a mouthful of sweet, fattening donut.

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[Suzuko enjoys a donut as she sets off to a new destination, it seems that she has learned that it is acceptable to indulge one’s self, at least sometimes.]

Film:Fast Food Nation “The Fake Food and Desire”

The film Fast Food Nation begins with a company official of fast food company, Don Anderson trying to find an idea that can help him create new item to sell. When he starts the trip however, he starts to be exposed to the hidden stories behind the fast food system. From then on the film introduces several issues relating to the fast food industry from the meat factory where animals are abused and slaughtered to fast food restaurants where disgusting products only get worse. In this stream of production of fast food hamburger, Fast Food Nation points out how people no longer focus on what they are consuming as “food”, but they focus on fulfilling their desires.

The most obvious desire the food connects is the gluttony; the desire to eat. In order to satisfy the desire to eat what is pleasing to the palate, people started to disregard what they are putting in to their own body. In order to make the fast food even more appealing, the fast food company has research team working on chemicals which appeals to appetite. For example, Don Anderson and one of the researchers share conversation about adding a specific type of chemical in order to add the sense of lime for the product which people believe to have lime in it. Even the new item which is introduced in the end, “the hickory smoke big one”, is created with chemicals that people have never heard of. The message is simple the food is not a real “food”.

Interestingly, the film shows different desire, not of American, but of the immigrants from Mexico. The desire of Mexican immigrants is not about eating tasty food, but to be accepted in the American community. The scene that effectively describes this tendency of immigrant is the date of two immigrants; they go to have a dinner at a restaurant filled with Americans, and order Chinese chicken salad. After the supper is over, the boyfriend talks about how delicious the food was when girl friend disagrees; in fact, she claims that the chicken was cold. The reason why two people have opposing opinion about same dish is because their desires are different. The boy friend desires to be fitted in the American society thus he continues to talk about who he would like to get an American brand truck. Deluded by his own the desire, the boy friend purposely blind own eyes to see the truth.  On the other hand, the girl friend didn’t wish to immigrate to America in the first place and does not fully wish to become American. Therefore, only she is able to see the food as consuming nutrition which was not cooked properly.

The film finishes with most realistic ending possible. Although company’s official found out about the corruption within the fast food production, he surrenders himself to the logic of events around him. Similarly, even though both book and film Fast Food Nation pin points out the problems of production system and faults on the food itself, people will continue to buy McDonalds the next day.

Film: Fast Food Nation

“There’s shit in the meat.”

This revelation sets the stage for the film Fast Food Nation, a drama loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book of the same name. The movie follows several separate stories: Don Anderson’s mission to uncover the truth behind the meat his company, Mickey’s, uses for its popular hamburgers; high school student and Mickey’s employee Amber’s realization of the corruption and animal cruelty behind the fast food she makes; and the exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants, who come to America hoping for a better life, but find only ill-treatment and abuse in the meat processing plant they work at. Mainly, Fast Food Nation scrutinizes the problems of unsanitary and unsafe work environments, contaminated food, and animal and worker mistreatment.

As consumers of fast food, people do not usually think about what must happen in order for them to be able to buy a hamburger. As long as it tastes delicious, what could be wrong? The truth is that the hamburger is only the final step in a lengthy—and often corrupted—pyramid of people and processes. It is part of a food system that includes commercial, human, and animal links. Pitfalls are present in every part of the system, from the initial steps of brutally slaughtering cows—graphically shown in the film—to the concluding stage involving the dirty actions of displeased fast food workers who spit in their customers’ food. In between, there is the widespread mistreatment of workers in meat processing plants. These laborers are sometimes sexually harassed by managers, and use dangerous machinery that not uncommonly removes human limbs. They are physically unable to keep up with the fast pace of the machines, which results in tainted meat and introduces a secondary theme: advancement of technology. Although progress quickens production, it also means that more and more workers are thrown into the workplace without training to operate potentially hazardous machines. Because workers possess neither job nor physical security, they are unhappy and often resort to drugs, contributing to even more work accidents and carelessly prepared meat.

The beginning and end of the film are important exemplifiers of the fast food system. At the beginning, the scene comprises of cheerful families eating at Mickey’s. One particular hamburger is taken apart; the camera slowly zooms in on the meat, to the point where the viewer finds it slightly disorienting. This is symbolic of the fast food system, how meat is the heart of the system, and how there is much more to meat than what meets the eye (or taste buds). The conclusion of the film neatly wraps up the film with an ironic twist when a new group of Mexican immigrants cross the border, and the children are greeted with bags of Mickey’s hamburgers. This illustrates how fast food has become an American symbol, and demonstrates how deep the fast food system has penetrated American culture, to the point of no escape.

Although it is largely a drama film, Fast Food Nation shows much of what happens behind the bright and welcoming counters of fast food restaurants. After watching it, viewers will definitely think twice before biting into a hamburger.

Tampopo, a Ramen Western Film

Spaghetti western: a western movie made in Italy (usually) with Italian actors and an American star (Webster’s Universal College Dictionary, 2004).

Is a ramen western film therefore a western movie made in Japan with Japanese actors and an American star? Why yes, yes it is (essentially) according to the film titled Tampopo directed by Itami Jūzō in 1985. Specifically, the introductory shot of the film which is an overview of Tampopo’s ramen shop, visually embodies and represents the ramen western genre in three particular manners. First off, the color scheme contrast in the clothing of the actors highlights the typical good versus evil Western theme. That is to say, Goro’s and Gun’s white clothing versus the dark clothing of Pisken and his four thugs figuratively speaking, equals good and righteousness versus evil and villainy, Western morality in a nutshell. The Western ideal of chivalry is also exhibited in the scene at hand via Goro’s defense of Tabo and Tampopo. The defense of women and children (especially of women) is a trademark theme of the spaghetti western.

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Good vs. Evil

Also, Tampopo’s ramen western nature is further made evident by the shot’s music choice. For instance, the second Goro and Gun step into Tampopo’s ramen shop, a dramatic crescendo plays reminiscent of the American old west as it is portrayed in 1960s and 1970s film. This crescendo in the moment of its rendition transforms the ramen shop into a hostile western saloon.  Accordingly, the setting is overrun with unwelcoming shadows, and the camera’s curt transitioning style foreshadows social antagonism and conflict. In addition, take note that the camera is quite stationary in the lateral sense throughout the scene. Its inactivity and/or limited movement that is carefully slow and steady, conveys a sense of caution and alarm that accurately invokes the iconic Western theme of violence. Furthermore, the ramen shop’s saloon-like nature is enhanced when Goro flings a naruto piece at Pisken in a pistol-wielding manner. Ready. Draw. Shoot.

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Ready. Draw. Shoot.

Last but not least, where is the American star in Tampopo? Answer: Goro. Mainly, Goro’s “Americaness” is stereotypically indexed by his cowboy-like garb. Also, his trucker occupation is Western/American that is to say, foreign and exotic.

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Goro, the outsider.

All in all, the film titled Tampopo (1985) directed by Itami Jūzō in many ways and instances is a Japanese rendition of the West be it comical or serious. Its ramen western attitude is a double-edged sword in fact. That is to say, Tampopo comically plays on western cultural symbols but the fact that the film’s main focus is the West exalts the West and shadows Japanese culture. Elaborating on the later point, the West, knowledge and familiarity of the West is a source of power in the film. Nonetheless, it is also a potentially destructive essence when not handled and carried out correctly (reference to the film’s French dining scene). Altogether, Tampopo’s great regard of the West (negative or positive) as a ramen western film is a comment on Japan’s past cultural insularity. Before, Japan knew something and knew nothing of the West.

The benshi in Japanese cinema–clip

Here is a link to a clip of a famous film, The Water Magician. It’s adapted from a short story by Izumi Kyōka, who, like Tanizaki, specialized in very detailed and baroque kanji in addition to narratives of mystery. (Scroll to the bottom…the short essay is also worth reading.) The brief section is narrated, as you can hear, by a “live” voice. The benshi is one mode of narration you might keep in mind as you put together your Voicethread project.

The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

In his article, “Heart of Japaneseness: History and Nostalgia in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away,” Shiro Yoshioka quotes from Miyazaki’s discussion of the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum and the influence of its buildings on the aesthetics of Spirited Away:

The town, in which the bathhouse frequented by the deities is situated, is modeled after buildings in the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei Park, Tokyo. It is a museum in which houses and shops from the Meiji and Taishō periods have been moved in from elsewhere or reconstructed. I like the pseudo-Western style buildings from that period. They are interesting pieces of architecture. I often go there for a walk when I have some free time. There, I somehow feel really nostalgic [yatara to natsukashii kimochi]…

We, I think, have all forgotten the sort of buildings and the landscape and lifestyle of this slightly distant past [chotto mae no]…In this case, what we need to do now is to remember that lifestyle that dominated Japan just a little while ago, and cheer ourselves up [genki ni naru]. That’s what I wanted to do with that town in the film.

(260–261)

I visited the museum on May 5, 2011, and I took a couple of photographs with the Hipstamatic app for the iPhone that I’d like to share.