There is no greater film about food than Tampopo. Period. I’ve never seen Ramen Girl or Spanglish, nor have I raided my Barnes & Noble for Babette’s Feast. Noodles, whether it’s ramen, liangpi, pho, char kuay teow, boat noodles, pancit and so on and so forth, have now found a place in the American food landscape, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than to savor the flavors of this movie. In my youth, Tampopo was this mysterious film that would just sit in my video store, waiting to be discovered. My brother and I finally rented the DVD in the 2000s and we were literally BLOWN AWAY. You have to understand that for Asian-Americans like us, there was literally no respectful representation of Asian food in American TV or film. Tampopo, however, was different. Tampopo wasn’t just an indie darling, or some East Asian village flick that stoked white audiences’ “allure for the Orient.” It was a daring, modern-day comedy that asked you to not only take food seriously, but to realize that serious people make it their life’s work to make good food for you.
But let’s take a step back and shoot the shit about the details. Tampopo, for all the adjectives I’ve provided on the last paragraph, is, to its core, a movie about a struggling business. Our title character is a working class Mom who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen-ya afloat, and it’s only through a combo of factors that she runs into the gruff, cowboy trucker named Goro. After sharing his thoughts about how bad her ramen is, Tampopo becomes driven to make her business shine and enlists the man’s help to fire it all up. After giving her a few tips, Goro soon goes to work in getting our lovable Mom into fighting shape. Literally. Either through jogging, pot lifting relays or ramen assembly speedruns, Tampopo’s journey to become a true noodle artisan is just packed with so much fun that even the pickiest of viewers will watch.
This leads us to the next big reason why Tampopo is such a fun flick: she ISN’T the only focus here! Throughout the course of the movie, we’re treated to a wealth of vignettes from foreground characters who all have their own food journeys to share. Some of these include a dim sum consumer with a toothache, a con man with a knack for Peking Duck and a stuffy Europhile whose course on pasta etiquette goes south for all the right reasons. And, without giving away too much, let’s not forget the amazing Koji Yakusho with his portrayal as a scene-stealing gangster whose eye for food is second to none. Thanks to these stories, Tampopo transcends its former status as a ‘Ramen Western’ into a full-blown celebration of Japan’s urban food scene in the 1980s.
However, Japan’s pre-bubble food scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the allure of Ramen and its status as blue collar cuisine. When the film does shift back to Tampopo , we see how much consideration goes into every single element of a bowl of ramen. From the texture of the noodles to the details of making the right broth, Tampopo’s desire to become a top chef reveals that making ramen isn’t just some process that comes out of a pot or a microwave; it’s the ultimate reflection of working class Asia, where humble, hard-working customers demand genuine food from genuine people.
The times, however, have changed. This is 2018, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, ramen is in the big leagues now. That being said, Tampopo functions as a window into a not-so-distant past devoid of Yelp, overseas ramen-ya and our predisposition for Michelin stars.
All in all, Tampopo is a paean to the epicure in all of us, showing us firsthand that ‘slinging hash’ isn’t just a way to get by, but a chance to express ourselves through senses beyond sight and hearing. Even though we’re unable to smell or taste what’s on screen, Tampopo is a visual feast that stokes both our hunger and curiosity without the need for explanations. This is especially the case when it comes to the preparation of dishes that aren’t ramen, including omelette rice and Korean barbecue. However, despite these gorgeous gourmet scenes, this film has more to offer than meets the eye. When we get to the meat of it, Tampopo is, at its core, a heart-warming study on the values of passion and cultivation. This is best exemplified through our title character’s own journey, where she transforms herself from a sullen cook and widow into a passionate, knowledgeable and vibrant chef whose determination and resilience blossoms beyond the evolution of her ramen. From here, we can safely say that Juzo Itami’s film isn’t just an ode to the gourmet in all of us. It’s a potent and vibrant reminder about our capacity to savor the tangible, to love furiously, to share joy with others and to realize just how timeless exuberance can be in the pursuit of mastery.