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From the prison-set cookery lesson in Goodfellas to the black cannibalistic comedy of Delicatessen and the gluttony of the gargantuan diner in The Meaning of Life, the theme of food is a rich and well-ploughed field in cinema. But it is surely director Jûzô Itami who offers audiences the definitive on-screen culinary experience in Tampopo. Through a series of vignettes hung together by the widow of a noodle chef, this ramen-western explores how the pleasure and meaning we derive from food are vital and enriching components in the human experience.
Opening with an introduction to cinema-eating etiquette, Tampopo begins with truckers Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) stopping at a ramen bar for a quick snack. Gorô quickly inspires the ire of the drunk layabouts in the bar when he defends the owner, the eponymous Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), from their harassment. He receives a sound beating for his trouble, and after staying the night, he and Gun agree to help improve Tampopo’s skills.
Gorô put Tampopo through her paces, observing the success of her rival ramen chefs and utilising slightly underhanded tactics to acquire recipes for good noodles and broth. It’s a thin plot, but their journey is so compelling that the lack of real incident works to the film’s credit, allowing the characters to develop without the need for hackneyed plot devices or contrived conflict. Reminiscent of the classic western Shane, Gorô’s growing affection for Tampopo remains unspoken throughout, seasoning the story with the right amount of melancholy without ever overpowering its overall warmth.
Supporting Tampopo‘s main story are a series of vignettes, each about the parts that food plays in people’s lives. Early on, these sections threaten to distract from Tampopo’s story, but as they loosely intertwine and interact with each other, they allow for a fuller exploration of the film’s thesis and provide vital context for Gorô’s insistence on perfection and precision in the workplace. Moving from the erotic, the absurd, and the tragic, Itami’s representations of food give us access to the most intimate areas of people’s lives, reminding us of the unique place that food occupies in our humanity.
A nexus of biological need, pleasure, and culture, food punctuates the moments of our lives from birth to death, frames and exposes our pretensions, and creates meaning in the necessity of survival. Rich in meaning but light in execution, Tampopo
‘s delicate balance is perhaps its greatest success. In exploring both the joy and sadness of life without resorting to the dour or the sentimental, cineastes of all flavours will find much nourishment in Tampopo’s
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell