Filmed over 30 years ago and halfway across the world, Tampopo still appeals to all audiences. It has humor. It has drama. It has social commentary. It’s a movie that stands astride the globe, plastering smiles on people of all creeds and cultures. One could walk into Tampopo without any knowledge of Japanese food or culture and walk away satiated.
Still, knowing a bit about Japan helps. Tampopo may feel tame enough today, but in 1980’s Japan, the film pushed some cultural boundaries that won’t be evident to the typical western viewer. In addition, as with all comedies, Tampopo, plays on cultural and social expectations for its jokes. In this piece, I want to point out the cultural elements at play in Tampopo so that you can squeeze every ounce of flavor out of this scrumptious film.
Ramen in Japanese Society
Let’s begin with ramen itself. Tampopo is, after all, the story of a struggling ramen shop. Today, ramen shops are popping up throughout hip neighborhoods across the U.S. Interestingly, though, they occupy a much different role than they do in Japan. Here, ramen shops are popular among hip, young people in urban areas. In Japan, the typical ramen shop is staffed and patronized by men. You see, Japan, despite its modern trappings, is a deeply gender segregated place. While women are, of course, welcome in ramen restaurants, ramen is considered a quick meal for working men. What’s the equivalent environment for women? Spaghetti shops. Don’t ask me why. This was even more the case thirty years ago. Taken in this context, Tampopo’s struggle in the film isn’t just about making ramen, but about showing the world that a woman can be a master ramen maker.
Homelessness in Japan
Tampopo features an extended scene where the protagonist and her son enjoy food with a band of homeless men. From a modern western perspective, this scene may be considered endearing. In 1980s Japan, it also would have been considered provocative.
Homelessness in Japan manifests differently than we’re accustomed to. Almost all homeless people in Japan are middle aged or older men, many of whom have fallen victim to the country’s extremely rigid social and economic institutions. They do not beg, do not interact with non-homeless, and are often very well dressed. Many refuse to accept help from the government for fear that their families will find out. They tend to congregate in tight communities of well-organized cardboard shacks. Many of these trappings of Japanese homelessness are evident in this sequence.
While statistics on Japanese homelessness are sparse, it is anecdotally said that many of these people previously had well-paying jobs and families, but due to the vicissitudes of life, fell out of the system. Due to its rigid corporate structure, it’s extremely difficult for a man who leaves the labor force once to return. Due to its rigid social structure, where the man is expected to be the sole provider for a family, it’s extremely difficult for a jobless man to remain in the home. Instead of bearing the shame, some exile themselves from normal society and join the ranks of the homeless. While there are some institutions in place to help the homeless in Japan, for the most part, homelessness is not seen as an important social issue. The Japanese populace treats these people like they do not exist. This state of affairs was even more the case 30 years ago.
So, when Goro takes Tampopo to find a ramen master among the homeless, the film is doing something radical: it’s shedding light on homelessness. In a society which wants to ignore this shadow population, Tampopo provides an endearing, human face for a forgotten population, and forces the cinema-going public to look at it.
In this scene, a group of young women sit at a fancy restaurant while receiving intense instruction on how to eat spaghetti. When a foreign man starts to slurp his spaghetti at a different table, all hell breaks loose. The group of women, unable to contain their desires, break into a cacophony of spaghetti slurping.
This scene is brilliant at capturing the tensions of 1980s Japanese society. Tampopo was filmed at a moment in Japanese history when the country was westernizing rapidly. People were increasingly concerned with knowing western culture and manners. In addition, as with many things in Japanese society, people were anxious about getting it perfect. The etiquette teacher’s instructions might seem over the top, but they really aren’t too far from the reality of Japanese teaching. Many cultural commentators in Japan decry it’s “manual society,” where every action is spelled out by strict set of rules and procedures. At the same time, there was a certain nostalgia for more traditional Japanese culture. Many felt that in the boom years of the 1970s and ‘80s something important was being lost.
This scene illustrates this tension at a personal level. On the one hand these young women want to learn to be sophisticated western women. They want to eat spaghetti like Audrey Hepburn does. They want to vacation in Rome without committing a faux pas at the dinner table. They study spaghetti with the same intensity that they mustered for their college entrance exams. On the other hand, there’s a delicious looking plate of spaghetti in front of them, and they already know how to eat noodles. Ever since they were young, they’ve been slurping their noodles. It’s torture to ignore the sensual joys of spaghetti for the sake of western manners. In the end, all it takes is a nudge for these young women to throw out these foreign rules and return to traditional slurping.
The Business Lunch
In this scene, a group of businessmen go to a fancy restaurant. Everyone orders the same thing except for the most junior employee who has a drawn-out conversation with the waiter about his choices before ordering something completely different. Everyone else at the table is incensed.
Japan is well known as a hierarchical society that values consensus over conflict, for better or worse. This scene plays on those expectations. Hierarchy, in fact, is explicitly built into almost every interaction in Japan. For example, the Japanese language itself has different sets of endings for words depending on whether you’re speaking to someone positioned higher or lower than you in a hierarchy. It is impossible to speak with someone in Japanese without explicitly expressing your relative hierarchical position to that person.
Any viewer can see that the young man in the scene is at the bottom of this hierarchy, but a Japanese viewer would have a much clearer understanding. Any time you take guests to a meal in Japan, there’s an unspoken cultural rule governing where each person sits and how everyone behaves. The more senior a person is, the further from the door he [and yes most of the time it is a he] will sit. The least senior person is always seated closest to the door. In addition, guests will always be seated facing the door, while the hosts will be seated with their backs to the door. Finally, guests and more senior people are seated before hosts and less senior people. From the moment that the young man tries to take a seat before the guests on the far side of the table, we know he’s going to be trouble.
The young man’s biggest faux-pas in this case, though, is not his lack of attention to cultural conventions. Instead, his grave sin is to embarrass the guests. Here’s what’s going on. When the waiter asks the business guests for their order, its becomes apparent that they have no idea how to order from this menu. In order to help his guests avoid the embarrassment of admitting that they don’t know about French food, the senior host steps in and orders something. This allows the guests to just copy him. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone in the room knows that this has happened, even though no one has acknowledged it. This all goes according to plan until they get to the lowest man on the totem pole. Instead of following his boss’ lead, this young man decides to have an extended conversation about the menu, highlighting the guests’ lack of knowledge and embarrassing his boss. This man’s love for food is such that he risks getting fired just so that he can enjoy a delicious meal.
The Choking Scene
There is one food in Japan that’s notorious for killing the elderly: mochi. This rubbery, chewy substance made from glutinous rice is a staple, particularly in the winter, where it’s closely associated with ringing in the new year. In this scene, an old man is left at a restaurant and orders everything he’s told not to by his daughter. He nearly chokes to death but is saved by the creative use of a vacuum cleaner. As soon as an audience in Japan hears what the old man has ordered a dish named Oshiruko, they are set up to expect a choking. This dish, consisting of sweet red bean soup with chunks of mochi, may in fact, be the deadliest food on the planet.