Into to Film: Tampopo

For this activity, I chose the 1985 Japanese film Tampopo, written and directed by Juzo Itami. I’ve owned a physical copy of this movie for a couple of years and have never watched it until now. At the time, my roommate worked in an Asian cuisine restaurant and was an aspiring sushi chef. We caught a trailer for the film and decided watching it together would be a fun experience. Unfortunately, we never got around to viewing it, and said roommate moved to Seattle, Washington. Having now seen the film, I deeply regret missing out on that experience and wish I spent more quality time with him before he moved.

Tampopo is the only film by Juzo Itami I’ve watched, but I can certainly see how Itami could be considered an auteur filmmaker, especially considering that Itami has sole writing and directing credit on the film. Tampopo is only the second film by Itami, yet it is incredibly confident, exuding technique and style. The film swings between genres effortlessly, but we never stray too far from the central thesis of the film; food.

Tampopo’s central story follows the eponymous widowed mother in her low-end ramen shop, and the journey she undertakes by enlisting help from five strangers to improve her cooking and overhaul her restaurant. Occasionally, the movie will take a detour and follow a random character, giving us a different slice of life story that still revolves around food. These vignettes give the director a chance to explore entirely new genres than Tampopo’s story allows, while adding flavor to the distinct dish of the film.

The truth of Tampopo, I feel, is that our connections with each other, intertwined with food, is the essence of life. Throughout the film, we see characters coming together over a ramen restaurant, cooking a last meal for their family before passing away, expressing physical affection with food, and impressing senior co-workers with knowledge of fine cuisine. All of these stories form a cohesive narrative that is equally funny and moving.

Itami’s Tampopo could be considered a blend of formalism and realism. While the fourth wall is broken early on into the film with a joke, the film is focused on presenting all of its characters and stories as earnestly as possible, even if we are supposed to be laughing at the absurdity of the events at times. An unnamed character that appears at different times throughout the movie in a wrap-around story is first played for laughs, and eventually meets a tragic end. We see how he meets his lover by chance when buying oysters on the shore one day, and later we witness a bizarre scene of the two performing strange and sexual acts with food on each other (reminiscent of the satirical romance scene in Hot Shots). Late in the film, this character is shot multiple times in a dramatic scene, and he lies dying in the street. As his lover approaches and tearfully holds him in her arms, he uses his final moments to express regret for not experiencing a specific rare delicacy with her. These scenes are a mix of seriousness and absurdity, constantly slipping between heightened emotions and grounded naturalism.

If I had to choose one specific element of this film that stood out to me, it’s that the central story of the film revolves around a group of people banding together to help someone less fortunate. It’s not very original, I know, but I am a complete sap for this sort of story. Five people from completely different backgrounds band together over Tampopo and aid her in bettering herself and her life. There is little reward for them, other than free food, yet they are dedicated to assisting her in turning her little ramen shop around and being the best cook that she can be. The film’s final scene is Tampopo opening her shop after renovations and perfecting her cooking, with new customers flooding in. The five characters that have worked with her day and night for the past several months stand back in awe, and slowly file out as the restaurant becomes more and more crowded, nodding and smiling to each other and Tampopo with pride as they exit. Eventually, Goro, the leader of the five, shares a long glance with Tampopo before finally departing. While they are smiling, there is clearly a strong sense of longing. Goro is joined outside by the others, and they congratulate each other for their hard work by simply saying “we actually did it.” They depart their separate ways to their modest lives, and the film ends. I was struck by the incredible sense of accomplishment by all of these characters joining forces, and the humble praise they offer themselves in the end. Without openly acknowledging it, they seem to instill with their stoic nods and glances that they know they’ve achieved something great together, and formed strong bonds that some people may never experience, all in service of a stranger and her ramen shop.

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