And then again, sometimes I find myself watching a movie I’ve never heard of, a movie that I never would have stumbled into watching on my own, and not only is it fairly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and clearly an appreciation-enriching experience, but it’s exhilarating to watch and I find myself grateful for the chance to be so entertained. Case in point: Juzo Itami’s Tampopo.
The film, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, refers to itself as the first ramen western, intending to evoke comparisons with the old spaghetti westerns, but the joke has a lot of depth to it (much like the soup in a good bowl of noodles). Spaghetti westerns have nothing to do with spaghetti in their subject matter; they’re stories of cowboys in the American old west, which happened to be produced in Italy, where spaghetti is something of a national dish. Tampopo, on the other hand, has a few fleeting elements evocative of westerns, but dabbles in at least a dozen other genres as well. And, in addition to being the national-dish equivalent of spaghetti for Japan, ramen actually does constitute a major plot element for the film, or part of it, at any rate.
Ramen recurs as a motif throughout the movie, but the real subject matter is food and eating and drinking of all kinds. The film cleverly begins with a shot of a movie theater audience, and the entrance of a character whose name we never learn (even in IMDB he’s just “the man in the white suit”) but who is clearly some kind of gangster, along with his girlfriend and three enforcers. The couple takes two seats in the front row and the enforcers proceed to set up a table in front of them and spread out a gourmet meal. Before long the man in the white suit is standing up and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us, and proceeds from there to threaten one of his fellow patrons in the theater for crinkling his bag of chips too loudly.
That scene connects to the next, in which two long-distance truckers are driving in the rain, one behind the steering wheel and one reading aloud from a novel about a young man learning the ultimate art of ramen appreciation from an old sensei. The connection is that the two truckers are in the movie the man in the white suit came to see. Scenes from the novel about the ramen-eating sensei are intercut as well, until the truckers stop at a roadside noodle restaurant, where the proprietor is a young widow who has a bullied son and is bullied herself by her regular customers. The elder of the two truckers, Goro, ends up in a lopsided fistfight with the regulars, and the widow, Tampopo, nurses him back to health. She feeds him, asks him his honest opinion of her ramen, and he explains to her everything wrong with it, which underscores the fact that her livelihood is not going well. She asks him to teach her to make ramen better, and he agrees, which leads to some great training montages which are both effective in advancing the plot and wonderful mini-parodies of similar scenes in martial arts movies.
The film jumps around in its perspective, at times abandoning Goro and Tampopo to drop in on old businessmen ordering lunch at a French restaurant, then floating elsewhere in the restaurant to observe young Japanese women hoping to land jobs that will allow them to travel to the west, and therefore taking etiquette classes that go to great pains to explain that the loud slurping of noodles common in Japan is considered very gauche elsewhere. I kept waiting to see how the businessmen obsessed with consomme and the anti-slurping etiquette instructor would connect back to Tampopo’s storyline, but it turns out they never do. They are simply amusing digressions. As the movie continues, the digressions pile up, some of them inherently comedic and others less so, but all of them about the ways that people relate to food. There’s an erotic sequence involving hotel room service, featuring the man in the white suit and his girlfriend, which to my mind works far better than the similar scene in 9 ½ Weeks. There’s also an entire tragedy that plays out in less than five minutes about a terminally ill mother who cooks one last humble but satisfying meal for her husband and children before dropping dead at the dinner table.
But the film returns again and again to Tampopo, as Goro assembles a dream team of collaborators for her: a hobo king who knows all there is to know about soup, a chauffeur with a natural talent for noodles, and even the leader of the surly old regulars, who turns out to be a contractor and who completely renovates the noodle shop. With all the right ingredients and Goro’s training in cooking and serving techniques as well as customer psychology, Tampopo is primed to triumph. And she does, but in a very anticlimactic way. Her shop has a grand reopening, the ramen is good, the new customers are happy, and Goro drives off into the sunset. There is no third-act showdown at high noon, no tense standoff over boiling pots or steaming bowls. There’s simply a sense that from here on out, things might be a little better and brighter for Tampopo and her son.
Which is probably a fitting end for what’s rightfully been called Itami’s paean to cuisine. Food is so basic and so universal and yet so all-encompassing of infinite variety that it really doesn’t need to be pivotal in a battle between white hats and black. It’s always possible to elevate cooking, in so many different ways, and when that happens it is its own reward. You could enjoy the meal of a lifetime one magical night, and savor the memory the rest of your days, but in the morning your body is going to need to be fed again, and again, and again. Life goes on. Tampopo, the film, captures that essence, through a wide-array of mostly-charming vignettes around one central tale, showing almost as many emotional flavors of existence as there are spices in a gourmet kitchen.
One last note about the ways in which foods - even simple ramen noodles - influence life on far more levels than mere sustenance: when my wife and I started dating, I was living a pretty prototypical bachelor’s existence in a small townhouse with a cramped galley kitchen. I worked late and ate out a lot and didn’t keep a ton of food on hand. But one weekend afternoon I found myself with this amazing girl in my house and the great desire to feed her. I had some instant ramen, asked her if she’d like some, and she gratefully accepted the offer. I started boiling the water and opening the ramen package and it suddenly occurred to me that I had better ask her how she preferred her ramen. If I were making it for myself, I would use just enough water to submerge the noodles, and then drain off most of the water and fix a bowl of damp noodles dredged in chicken-flavored MSG and hardly any broth. I was in fact in autopilot mode and ready to do just that, but I realized just in time that my way is neither the traditional preparation nor necessarily anyone else’s preference. As it turned out, my houseguest liked to make her ramen noodles the exact same way I did. There really was never any shortage of signs in those early dating days that my new girlfriend was bound to end up as my lawfully wedded wife, but the “how do you like your ramen” story is one that we often bring up to one another as a neat little encapsulation. When two palates like to eat from the same pot, that’s a good match.