Tampopo: Zen and the Art of Ramen
Tampopo [Japan, 1985]
Language: Japanese [English subtitles]
Director/Writer: Juzo Itami
MPAA Rating: NR [nudity, erotic themes]
We begin in a movie theater. A stylish Yakuza boss in a white suit and matching fedora walks down the carpeted aisle alongside his moll, also resplendent in white. Once they’re comfortably seated in a largely unoccupied section of the theater, a fleet of servants arrive on cue and prop up a dinner table and pop open a bottle of champagne and prepare a first-rate fine dining experience for the couple.
The fedora-clad gangster then tells the audience — us, behind the fourth wall, not the actual theatergoers — about his distaste for noisy eating habits at the movies. Moments later he harangues an older gentlemen for loudly chomping on curry-flavored chips. But right before threatening the helpless man, our strong and confident Man in White asks with complete sincerity: “Are they good?”
Good food is an international language, and what we eat defines us: when asked of our favorite food we answer with a nationality. And the lengths we go to find our favorite restaurant is only equalled by our perseverance to do so. Legion are those who use traveling long distances — “to visit family” or “meet up with friends” — as an excuse to try an acclaimed spot, or hit up the old standby, the unassuming family-owned establishment so intimate it remains unknown to those outside your most inner circle.
Tampopo’s national identity is a bowl of steaming soup, smooth noodles and thinly-sliced pork —traditional Japanese cuisine in modern-day Tokyo (circa 1985). Described by director Juzo Itami as a “noodle western,” it’s easily the greatest movie about ramen ever made. The Ramen Girl, released in 2008 and starring the late Brittany Murphy, is a very distant second in this microgenre of two.
A noodle-based nod to the Spaghetti Westerns of the mid-60s, Tampopo has its own hero: a milk-truck-driving cowboy named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki). When he first appears at the film’s central location, a noodle shop carelessly run by a dowdy widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), he ambles in with a swagger appropriate for a saloon, a local watering hole. Goro and his sidekick Gun are famished but perceptive of their surroundings — trouble is brewing when the pot isn’t boiling. Goro defends Tampopo’s honor from a surly long time customer of hers (of course), launching into an off-screen melee with the drunk patron and five local ruffians. Outnumbered, we can assume Goro and Guy put up a good fight but ultimately lost. All we know for certain is that nobody finished their soup.
The following day Goro gives Tampopo his honest opinion of her soup — “It lacks guts,” he says matter-of-factly — and good advice with such clarity and attention to detail that she begs him to stick around & become her sensei. He relents, and their quest to create the perfect bowl of ramen begins.
When the espionage for secret recipes starts, the narrative spirals into multiple paths, slyly related vignettes that observe the customs, routines and lives dependent on the art of food, spiraling but always on course, spiraling like thekamaboko, the hot-pink pinwheel afloat in a ramen’s broth. Strange and unforgettable visions of rigid oysters, rank abscesses, vagabonds among the gastronomic elite, noodles that lack profundity and a bizarre erotic ritual involving an egg yolk that is best not described here.
Indescribable describes the preparation of one Far East delicacy, suppon (soft-shell turtle). It’s a short but difficult scene to watch, perhaps a step beyond my comfort zone. But is it any more inhumane than our methods of slaughtering or boiling a lobster alive? I’m still not entirely sure, and I’m in no shape to defend my moral position on such subjects. I’ve eaten & enjoyed veal for years. But I digress.
For a comedic satire of the Wild West and Japanese food culture, Tampopo is impossibly original, deeply affecting at times, and outright hilarious in ways I never thought possible. Our widow’s transformation from a submissive mouse to a masterful soup maiden is done ever so tastefully (oof) that it requires multiple viewings. Furthermore, the pacing of the extraneous scenes are much more rewarding the second or third time through, without the distraction of sorting out their importance.
If we’re to believe in Tampopo, prosperity is achieved through obsessive dedication, preparation, endless training, rough drafts, bold experiments and a good support system. Everybody has their own ladder, and it’s on these ladders we climb and find our utmost ability (and stability).
And sometimes realizing you have a ladder to climb is enough.
“Tampopo” is available on DVD and Netflix.