Food. It’s a core part of every life and every culture. No matter where you’re born or how you’re brought up, you celebrate, you grieve, you argue, you make friends, and you fall in love over food. Eating is a ritual that ties us to every person that’s ever existed. It’s an experience we share with friends, enemies, and strangers alike. It’s an experience that can bring us all closer together. And yet, despite food’s centrality in human life, it’s a topic that’s rarely covered effectively in film. I can count the number of great movies centering around food on one hand. Chief among this handful of movies is Japanese auteur Juzo Itami’s 1985 comedy Tampopo.
Lovingly called a Ramen Western, Tampopo centers on the struggles of a single mother named Tampopo [Nobuko Miyamoto] who’s juggling child rearing with running a mediocre ramen restaurant. When truck driver, Goro [Tsutomu Yamazaki], drops into her restaurant and finds the ramen unsatisfactory, he stays to lend a hand. From there Tampopo and Goro, along with a crew of misfits gathered along the way, embark on a quest to create the best ramen experience. From ideal restaurant layout to the most flavorful broth to the noodles with the best texture to the best customer service experience, the team travels throughout Tokyo to discover what makes for great ramen. By the time the last noodle’s been slurped and the last drop of soup has been sipped, viewers are treated to an entertaining exploration of the whole ramen experience.
While the film’s primary focus is on Tampopo and the gang, though, it also frequently leaves them during a series of vignettes which veer into the surreal. Viewers are treated to a chorus of gourmet homeless men, conmen conning conmen, a lady obsessed with fondling produce, a session of illegal omelet making, an innovative cure for choking, and the oddest kisses ever captured on film, among many other scenes. In fact, the film covers so many disparate situations that it’s hard to believe that it holds together. But it does. Like the best dishes, the film combines a cornucopia of disparate ingredients into an unexpected delight. Tampopo’s journey and the film’s diverse vignettes meld together over its 114-minute runtime treating viewers to a masterpiece where the complex flavors of life and culture come to the fore. With Tampopo, Itami creates a delicious, multicourse movie overflowing with humor and pathos.
How does Tampopo pull off this trick? How does Itami prepare a film that encapsulates the entirety of life with an ease that makes it seem inevitable? The secret ingredient, it turns out, is the film’s emphasis on the importance of food. Underneath all the people and stories and situations in Tampopo is an understanding that eating, preparing, and sharing food is inextricable from our humanity. It serves as a reminder that, no matter how different we are from one another, we share the experience of food. And perhaps that’s a reminder that we could all use now. A good meal doesn’t have the power to stop bombs or end poverty. It can, though, remind us that we have more in common than we’re conditioned to believe. A meal can build a friendship. It can grow our understanding of others. It can give us moments of fleeting contentment that we share with everyone at the table. Liberal and Conservative. Left and Right. Urban and Rural. Rich and Poor. These chasms between us don’t have to keep widening. In an era where we feel like the world is fracturing, maybe food is the glue that can hold us all together. Maybe we all need to sit down together, share a meal, and watch Tampopo.
Our celebration of Tampopo this week includes:
- A cultural guide to the film's many vignettes
- First Viewing from an American perspective
- Related Review of iconic sketch comedy film, Kentucky Fried Movie
- Our usual streaming recommendations
- And more!