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‘Tampopo’ Is One of the Best Food Movies of All Time

More than thirty years after its release, this love letter to ramen is more relevant than ever

All photos courtesy of Janus Films

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein.

A quarter century before Jiro dreamt of sushi, Juzo dreamt of ramen. That would be Juzo Itami, the writer and director of Tampopo, a ramen-centric comedy originally released in 1985 and now enjoying a theatrical re-release after a painstaking restoration. The images are now sharper, the ramen more delectable. But what this really means is that those who sit at the intersection of cinephilia and ramen obsession, a population whose numbers today surely dwarves the population 30 years ago, can finally see every shimmering globule of pork fat floating in a shoyu broth on the big screen just as they — and Itami’s film — deserves.

For those of us who came of age in an era of food porn and regionalist fetishism, it’s hard to imagine just how foreign the language of Tampopo was when it first came out. Ramen, which has now been a trend for so long it’s undergone enough mitosis to create ramen burgers and ramen tacos, was in 1985 not yet a thing — at least in the United States. In his review of the film, the New York Times’s Vincent Canby refers to noodles but never once to ramen. Roger Ebert worried, “American audiences would know little and care less about the search for the perfect Japanese noodle.” Today, on the other hand, even the most nativist culinary soul could likely offer a disquisition between ramen and soba, shoyu, and shio, Asahikawa and Kitakata varietals, if pressed.

It would be in error, however, to say the primary joy of Tampopo is reserved for food nerds and noodle jockeys. The film is loopy noodling fun. The narrative, which borrows heavily from the Spaghetti Western — Tampopo was the world’s first ramen Western — and from the absurdist work of Jacques Tati, unfolds as a series of tangentially related tales. Often the interstitial fascia are tenuous — a train moving in the background segues into the story of a passenger on that train attempting to enjoy dumplings despite an oral abscess. But what each vignette has in common is that food is the central character, the paper tube around which the cotton candy threads cohere.

The main narrative concerns a ramen-making widow, Tampopo, and her son, Shohei, whose ramen shop is besieged by hoodlums and beleaguered by mediocrity. By happy accident, Goro, a strong and silent ramen-loving trucker and his affable enthusiastic sidekick, Gun (Ken Watanabe in his breakout role) stop by. Goro is equally horrified by the sub-par ramen and enamored with its beautiful maker. So Goro takes Tampopo under his wing in classic Western fashion, and, after much tearful imprecation on her part and gazing into the distance on his, decides to supervise Tampopo’s metamorphosis from crawling ramen slinger to beautiful ramen butterfly.

Through this story, we are introduced to a cast of supporting characters who would seem equally at home mingling with Corky St. Clair of Waiting for Guffman or the Parson from The Canterbury Tales. There is the wizened broth master and his merry band of gourmet mendicants, a stern chauffeur and noodle expert, a roustabout general contractor-and-interior designer, plus an ensemble of ramen makers that range from monastic to thuggish.

Some of my favorite characters are those glimpsed in the drive-by interludes. These are momentary glimpses into open doors of unfolding stories. It’s as if we were passengers on an elevated train, peeking into apartments as they blur by. The scenes are gestural and still somehow whole. In one, a young corporate lackey who out-orders his superiors at a business lunch, for instance, perfectly captures the joyless, shame-fueled conformity of sararīmen and how something as trifling as knowing how Taillevent forms its quenelles is a great social leveler.

The films begins and ends with another unforgettable character: a dandy gangster with a proclivity for sexual mischief and Lucullan spreads. In film history, there exists a distinct sub-genre of scenes involving eggs that shall forever linger in the minds of whoever sees them. One is the real-time omelette making at the end of Big Night. Another is the prodigious hard boiled egg-eating of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

But indisputably, the best scene involving eggs ever filmed is one long sequence of terrific delight, suspense and titillation at the center of Tampopo and involving this gangster and his mistress. This gangster’s life is pretty baller. It involves parties and bullshit, room service and movies and lots of sex. We’ve already seen him place live prawns in an upturned bowl, suck whipped cream off his lover’s left breast. But shellfish and dairy is just foreplay for ova and the sequence in which the couple passes a raw yolk from his mouth to hers and back again until it — the yolk, them, us — is overcome with excitement and bursts, sending bright yellow strands running down her chin. It’s that weird chiaroscuro combination of explicit and implicit that sears itself into our psyches.

But, of course of course of course, the real star of Tampopo is a genuine love of ramen. As Ebert points out, the film could have easily lapsed into broad comedy if it weren’t for Itami’s insistence on specificity. There are vast stretches of exposition on the finer points of how to make broth (the key is never to let it boil); on the importance of being able to remember the rapid-fire orders of customers; on the amount of lye-content in the water used to make noodle dough; and even on the height of the pass and the depth of the counter as it pertains to ramen bowls. On the consumer side, a ramenologist offers a concise primer on the methodology and proper sequence of eating a bowl of ramen. True, some of his pointers seem far-fetched — “While slurping the noodles, look affectionately at the pork” — but the soundness of others, like “appreciate its gestalt,” is indisputable.

When it first came out, Tampopo was billed as a satire. The Los Angeles Times called it a “lubricious mix of the sensual and the satiric” (lubricious, by the way, a word only used in movie reviews). At the time, the objects of satire were primarily thought to be the Spaghetti Western as a genre and certain Japanese mores, like whether or not to slurp. Izami’s treatment of ramen, by contrast, at least to Japanese audience, was cheeky in its touch but not ridiculous. To American eyes, the specifics were foreign perhaps, but “in the land of sweet corn festivals, bake-offs, and contests for the world's best chili,” as Ebert wrote, the pursuit wasn’t.

Thirty years on, the object of satire has wily shifted, at least to this viewer. It’s discombobulating, for instance, to watch Tampopo in an age of Chef’s Table, whose camera lingers with just as much lasciviousness as Itami’s — but with none of the humor. It’s almost as Tampopo is satirizing that which it spawned 30 years hence.

The world that greeted Tampopo on its first release is much changed than the one that greets its re-release. Back then, it was the Wild West, freewheeling and unexplored. Today, there’s a ramen joint on every corner and a Netflix doc on every subject. And through them all waft the rich, satisfying and warming aromas of Tampopo, her glistening broth, her perfect noodles, her menma and her shinachiku roots, and her thin slices of pork, meant to be gazed at affectionately.