There are a lot of people, I’ve found out through my experiences in life and the Internet, who have this fantasy about Japan being basically another world. What that other world is changes depending on the person: some people imagine a place out of the future, with robot servants and ridiculous conveniences. Others fantasize about a place where honor and tradition are still widespread, where you can truly find inner peace and coexist with your fellow man. A lot of people just want a place where it’s the longstanding tradition that adults like video games and cartoons. Of course, Japan is just another country, and the people there are just like people anywhere. But you can’t blame people for dreaming, especially when Japan itself produces movies like Tampopo, which presents a version of Tokyo where every single person is a foodie.
Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (a super young Ken Watanabe) are two truckers who just happen to stop by a divey ramen shop one rainy night because Gun is hungry after reading a book about how to truly appreciate ramen. Outside they save a boy who is being beaten up by three of his classmates, and then inside Goro picks a fight with a man who is harassing the owner of the ramen shop, a woman named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). The dude’s buddies gang up on Goro and he wakes up the next morning in Tampopo’s house. She thanks Goro for helping and feeds him and Gun her ramen, and they tell her the noodles are “sincere, but lack character.” So she asks them to help her, and the group decides to turn her restaurant into the best ramen shop in the city.
Tampopo is quickly put through an intense regiment of training exercises by Goro, but after a while it becomes clear she needs more help. Goro first introduces her to the old master, an old man who used to be a doctor and now lives among the city’s foremost culinary experts: a bunch of homeless men. He will help her perfect her broth. Next, the gang saves a rich old man from choking on food he’s eaten too quickly and out of gratitude, he lends them his chauffeur, a master noodle-maker. Finally, Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka), the man who beat up Goro, approaches him and apologizes for letting his men gang up on Goro. He challenges Goro to a rematch which ends in a draw, and as they recover, Pisken reveals he’s a contractor and offers to remodel Tampopo’s shop.
So yeah, Tampopo is a bit of a send-up to The Seven Samurai and basically every Western movie that came after it. Juzo Itami, the film’s writer and director, even acknowledged that fact in the film’s marketing, where he called it the first “ramen western”, an obvious play on spaghetti westerns. But there’s a lot more to Tampopo than its main plot, as the movie tends to abandon our heroes and turn its focus toward other food stories around the city whenever it gets the chance. During one scene when Tampopo and Goro are in a park, the camera turns and follows a group of businessmen. They go to a French restaurant, where they’re all embarrassed they can’t make sense of all the fancy foods and even more embarrassed when the most junior man there shows vast culinary knowledge. Then the camera heads outside of this group to focus on another one, a bunch of women taking an etiquette class on eating spaghetti the Western way. Their teacher explains how important silence and grace is when eating, only to be upstaged by a white dude loudly slurping away at his own meal nearby. Vignettes like these are peppered throughout the film.
As a result, you could say that Tampopo is a more universal film about life and humanity’s relationship with food. The film features an enormous cast of characters from all walks of life; rich and poor, old and young, men and women. There’s a couple that incorporate food into their lovemaking, an old woman who sneaks around fondling food at the grocery store, a con artist who gets caught because he wants to finish his dinner, a mother who wakes from her deathbed to prepare one last meal for her family, and many more stories to enjoy. The movie even ends on a shot of a baby breastfeeding in the park, perhaps literally the last story about food Itami could possibly have found.
Speaking of him, Juzo Itami is an interesting guy. The son of a famous Japanese filmmaker, Itami decided to act rather than follow directly in his father’s footsteps. Then, at the age of 50, he directed his first film, The Funeral, which won much acclaim, including the Japanese Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Tampopo was his second film, and his most well-known internationally. In 1992, he made a movie called Minbo, a yakuza satire, and shortly after its release he was badly beaten by furious yakuza. He turned his experiences recovering in the hospital into his film Daibyonin, which is about the Japanese healthcare system. Itami died in 1997 after falling from the rooftop of the building he worked in, an act that was ruled a suicide but later a former yakuza said, “We set it up to stage his murder as a suicide. We dragged him up to the rooftop and put a gun in his face. We gave him a choice: jump and you might live or stay and we’ll blow your face off. He jumped. He didn’t live.”
But let’s not dwell on Itami’s death too long, especially in the context of a movie as vital as Tampopo. This is a film that relishes in the act of eating and all the slurping, gnashing, and spilling that indicates people are truly devouring their meal. It shies away from nothing in its pursuit of human truth, showing things like terrifying and unorthodox ingredients, the art of killing a turtle swiftly so it can be prepared correctly, and two people passing an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth. All that and so, so much noodle slurping, you won’t believe it. They say everybody eats to live, but a few live to eat. Tampopo is for them.