Some movies can be watched in the same transient way we eat popcorn – one pops the kernel in his or her mouth, tongue brushing against the buttery coat (or against the dusted cheese, barbecue or [insert flavor of choice here] powder), and swallows quickly. But others simply need more time to ferment in one’s consciousness, so that the mind can fully digest and appreciate it.
The 1985 comedy Tampopo (Dandelion), helmed by Juno Itami, is one such. A look at Itami’s body of work reveals that he is a director best described as sensational, in every sense of the word. A number of his cinematic oeuvres depict touchy themes like adultery and violence, and made full use of his signature satire on the silver screen.
The first scene in Tampopo features a gangster with his moll in a cinema. He breaks the third wall and tells the audience of his ideal uninterrupted viewing experience, where his fellow movie watchers eat their food without a sound and watch alarms don’t go off unexpectedly. From the get-go, Itami forces the viewers to realize that the consumption of food can be connected even to their individual cinematic experience, and their relations with others in the same environment.
Tampopo, the titular character, is a widow struggling to run the ramen shop her husband had left behind. The business isn’t doing very well, and she only realizes why one night when two truck drivers critique her dishes. Her cooking leaves much to be desired, but she was brimming with enthusiasm to improve.
As she embarked on her quest for the perfect techniques of making ramen, she encounters a mirage of interesting characters and unexpected mentors. Though the central narrative zeroes in on Tampopo’s culinary metamorphosis, the film is made up of different vignettes and sub-plots; not all of them are significant or even relevant to the widow’s tale, but the yoke that binds them together is food.
These tangential storylines present the various facets of Japanese life that are affected by food, as well as the various facets of food that influence lives. The characters and the situations they find themselves in mirror cultural realities in the context of personal and social dining. An elderly woman incessantly and lasciviously squeezes food products in a supermarket. A prissy etiquette instructor tries to teach young women the proper Western way of eating spaghetti – silent and slow – in a French restaurant. The camera then cuts to a Caucasian customer slurping away at his pasta, reveling in the Asian method of devouring – the girls follow suit, and eventually, so does the instructor.
The adjacent scene features haughty superiors gathered for a meal in the same French eatery. They know squat about the menu entries but are too proud to admit it, and so they order the same item to avoid making fools of themselves. With them is an intern, still but surprising, who puts his superiors in their place by revealing exemplary knowledge of French cuisine by ordering quenelles, escargot and vintage wine.
A dying mother forces herself out of bed to cook for her family one last time in a poignant sequence. Similarly, Tampopo puts what meager cooking skills she has to good use by making a rice omelet for her son.
Besides the familial aspect of food, the film also delves into its potential for arousal. It demonstrates this best through the sexcapades of a white-suited gangster and his moll, both of whom delight in exploring alternative uses for salt and lemons, whipped cream, live shrimps and raw egg. The same gangster also figures in a scene involving oysters, the ultimate aphrodisiac. He feeds on an oyster from an adolescent oyster farmer’s hand; her tongue glides sensuously across his lips as she clears off the blood from a fresh cut.
The movie is also quick to maintain that food is as much about unbridled passions and simple pleasures as it is about discipline and self-control. Through her intensive and extensive (if improvised) training, for instance, Tampopo discovers that food-making is as much a discipline as it is an art and science. Maintaining the ramen shop is also her means of bridging the past and the present, of keeping her husband’s memory alive for her son and herself.
Tampopo spoons out the values that individuals and cultures attach to food, all in a heaping cinematized feast for the senses and sensibilities. Food meets our needs and feeds our wants; it is with this philosophy that the film seeks to show how and why we eat beyond sustenance. Even the most domestic fare may be rife with erotic qualities. This malleability in the functions of food renders it both essential and quintessential from womb to tomb, for love-making and life-giving.
The development of cuisine is rooted in culture, but the former can also come into its own and become pervasive enough to define the latter. The staunch safeguarding of food traditions, such as the conscientious preparation of the perfect ramen, is not purely nostalgic in nature. After all, heritage cuisine does not only belong to the past; it can very well nourish future generations, and add flavor to a person’s and a people’s future.