The Sensual Pleasures of Tampopo, the Ramen Western
Juzo Itami’s ramen western Tampopo starts with a Man in a White Suit (Koji Yakusho) bursting into a cinema with his lover (Fukumi Kuroda). He has a table full of gourmet food set up in the front row, sets down to relax, and threatens to kill a man loudly eating potato chips sitting a few rows behind him. He turns back to the screen and directly addresses the camera, entreating the viewer to enjoy the cinematic meal he or she is about to be presented. Two hours later, Tampopo ends with a baby sucking at its mother’s breast in the park as the credits roll overtop. Meals of one sort fill this unconventional movie from beginning to end.
Tampopo is the food movie to end all food movies. It plays as a western, a slow-burn romance, a sports flick, a gangster movie, and a collage picture, surrounding its central narrative with a series of vignettes about food and life. Food infuses every part of its narrative, but it’s not mere food porn for hungry viewers. It’s silly, but not stupid. It’s pastiche, but it’s not satire. How could it be? There’s too much joy here to allow mockery room at the table—joy in food, in sex, in friendship, in the struggle to create something worthwhile.
The film’s central plot revolves around the quest to make a perfect bowl of ramen, that savoury Japanese noodle soup that has become one of the country’s chief exports in recent years. The film also trails off on amusing detours, sometimes literally so, as when a new character passes through the frame distracting the camera, which then follows that character for a few minutes and documents their culinary experiences. As well, Tampopo also checks back in with the Man in the White Suit and his lover from time to time, recounting their sexual explorations of food. While each of these vignettes play in a variety of genres, the film is primarily operating in the western genre, as its moniker ramen western indicates.
Tampopo starts with the Man in the White Suit, but quickly turns to truck drivers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe), driving their long-haul milk truck down the rainy highways of Tokyo. After Gun recounts a story of asking an old noodle master to tell him the proper way to eat ramen (observe the whole bowel, caress the surface to express affection, apologize to the pork while tucking it under the noodles, and finally start with the noodles while maintaining eye contact with the pork), Goro grows hungry and they stop off at a random noodle joint in the suburbs. After helping the son of the owner fend off some bullies beating him up, they head inside to where Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is beset by preening thugs intent on taking advantage of her recent widowhood.
From his cowboy hat and neckerchief to his sun-drenched skin and stoicism, Goro is a cowboy straight out of a Hollywood western. And as befitting a cowboy, he decides to dispatch the thugs single-handedly, taking them outside to fight in the rain. He loses the fistfight (there are simply too many of them) but he does manage to run them out of Tampopo’s restaurant. When he wakes up the next morning in her home, he decides to forgo his deliveries in favour of training Tampopo and turning her noodle joint in the city’s best.
Tampopo follows the broad strokes of the western genre throughout, riffing specifically on Shane and The Magnificent Seven. Goro arrives from the road, with no history or ties to the present conflict, inserts himself into a struggle between a virtuous victim and predatory strangers, assembles his band of magnificent strangers to aid him in his quest, and then eventually vanquishes the villains while heading back on the road, leaving the victim strong enough to defend herself in the future.
Just as Shane (Alan Ladd) rides onto Joe Starrett’s (Van Heflin) homestead and sets about ridding the valley of cattle barons in George Stevens’ 1953 classic, Goro sets about reforming Tampopo’s restaurant and strengthening her for the battle ahead. As well, like Shane does with Marion Starrett (Jean Arthur), Goro shares a chaste romance with Tampopo—there are romantic touches throughout like Goro’s insistence on Tampopo’s unpretentious beauty, or the fact that Goro happens to fit into the clothes of her recently deceased husband, as if he’s been fated to fill that unhappy void. Goro also has his own magnificent allies, who selflessly agree to aid Tampopo—his crew includes a homeless gourmet master, the valet of a rich man whose life he saves, and the leader of the thugs he earlier drove from the restaurant, who respectively offer knowledge of soup stock, noodles, and interior design.
While there are no gunfights in the narrative, there are numerous showdowns. For instance, after Goro and Tampopo visit a rival noodle joint in their neighbourhood and insult the cook’s recipe for ramen, the affronted chefs demand to taste Tampopo’s recipe in retaliation the following dawn. Itami shoots their arrival at Tampopo’s restaurant like the arrival of the villains in a classic western, his camera at a low angle as it captures the swaying red curtains of the restaurant, which mirror the swinging doors of a saloon.
Even though Tampopo relies heavily on the western, shifting the genre’s conventions to accommodate the culinary focus, its many pleasures are not restricted to fans of that particular genre. Its many vignettes act as side dishes capable of appeasing all viewers, no matter their varied tastes.
The recurring moments with the Man in the White Suit and his lover are the film’s most memorable and infamous scenes. Aside from the opening, we first see them in their hotel room experimenting sexually with the various foods the room service delivers. For example, the Man in the White Suit juices a lemon on his lover’s nipples, sprinkles coarse salt on top, and licks her breasts clean. At another moment, he marinates a live prawn in her navel, using a glass bowl to trap the animal and suction her skin.
Later in the film he cracks an egg, separates the yolk from the white, and deposits the yolk into his lover’s mouth. He then passionately kisses her and they pass the yolk between their mouths, their arousal heightening with each pass, until it eventually bursts between her lips and she orgasms. There are few cinematic images more provocatively linking the pleasures of sex and food than the sight of the woman writhing in pleasure, egg yolk dripping down her chin. In his final appearance, the Man in the White Suit is fatally shot in the streets by an unknown assailant (Itami frames the scene so that the camera offers the direct perspective of the killer). Just before expiring in his lover’s arms, he’s able to tell her his secret recipe for sausages, which involves hunting a wild boar and immediately grilling its intestines. Even in death, his lust for food remains.
These moments are the film’s most explicit explorations of the link between food and sex, and food and death, but the vignettes offer plenty of other surprising moments, playing as small farcical episodes or delivering surprising nuance in the midst of bizarre imagery. One particular favourite finds a belligerent man rushing home to witness his unconscious wife’s dying moments. Feeling helpless, he does the only thing he knows how to do: he berates her into getting up and cooking him and their kids dinner. Shockingly, she struggles to her feet and cooks them one last fried rice dinner before succumbing to her illness. As the doctor pronounces her dead, the husband commands his children to continue eating the rice in the midst of their crying, forcing them to enjoy the last meal their mother gifted them.
As this moment suggests, Tampopo is a bizarre film, but it’s also a surprisingly profound one. It understands the way that food informs so many aspects of our daily lives, flavouring our triumphs or embodying our failures. It knows that food is a universal connector—that all people can bond over a good meal and that eating is an experience all humans share. It’s a cult film, but that generic label does little to clarify the film’s honest pleasures or thematic daring. In the small sub-genre of food pictures, no film leaves as delicious an aftertaste as Tampopo.
This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.