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'Tampopo': A wild Japanese ramen western


The human relationship with food is far more complicated than the simplistic action of eating suggests. In fact, food is far more than mere mastication, it is a daily ritualistic reminder of one’s own culture, with all the passion, humour, romance and eroticism of a particular nation being infused into the way we dine. Whilst, in England, the act of eating a curly fry dunked in a fusion of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup is far from objectively erotic, one can’t deny the gastronomic pleasure and pride that comes from such an experience. 

Toying with the language of cuisine as well as the makeup of cinema itself is Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo, a film sizzling with national pride for the methodical simplicity of one of Japan’s national dishes, ramen. Delicately poised in a decorative bowl, ramen consists of wheat noodles that are prepared in a delicately seasoned savoury broth, topped with local spring greens, tender sliced meat, eggs and a disc of naruto. 

Its assembly is an ancient art of construction, involving multiple carefully placed layers and an array of cooking skills to be able to pull off to perfection every time, with each part coming together to finally compliment the ultimate whole. It’s not dissimilar from the structure of Jûzô Itami’s film itself, with the marketed “ramen western” displaying a mosaic of several stories involving varying generations of characters who are each brought together for their passion for food. 

A celebration of food in all its forms, Tampopo flows like an ethereal cascade of ramen broth, playing with its celluloid structure by embodying everything from sensual drama to surreal tragedy. Defined partly by overarching surrealism, Juzo Itami’s culinary cinematic delight follows Gorô, a cowboy truck driver (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who trains an aspiring ramen chef named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) to transform her restaurant into the finest eatery in the region. 

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This only goes so far in explaining merely one course of Juzo Itami’s classic film, however, with the film’s multiple vignettes working to tie the film together and create one luxurious meal. Worming their way into the film like the rogue stone of an olive, these stories include that of a lowly office worker who upstages his superior bosses with his culinary knowledge at a French restaurant, an etiquette class teaching how to properly eat spaghetti and a housewife who rises from the dead to cook one last family meal.

These diversions from the main story are not met with a bitter taste, instead, they are welcome appetisers that complete the total film with the film sauntering around the complex world of food with its hands behind its back; it’s a sensory journey. Itami makes sure of this too, wafting the viewer in the direct eye line of steaming ramen, sticky balls of white rice and peaches that are pressed and bruised as if pesky pimples. 

Food is not a daily chore nor a grab ‘n’ go activity, in Tampopo food reflects the joys, flaws and passion embroiled within life itself, and truly there is no greater joy than consuming a glistening bowl of ramen, particularly when it’s been designed by Tampopo herself.

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