Tampopo: ‘How to Make Love to (and sometimes with) Food’ with Juzo Itami

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This is not a film to watch if you are starving or on a strict diet. It will make you run to the nearest noodle store, provided it’s a damn good one. If it’s not near, it will make you want to take a bus, a train or flight to the best noodle place you can find in your country or in some other country. In Japanese director Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, eating food is viewed as an activity that should be as delicate and patient as the act of making love. I see a direct correlation here. One is essential as the other, it shows. Hey, there is even a sensuous and wildly erotic scene where a woman’s body is, err, savored by garnishing it with an assortment of food items. There are coupe more scenes that has these sexual undertones. If this sort of thing excites you and if you’ve ever had fantasies like these, then these scenes will instantly turn you on. I was. This is a film that doesn’t encourage “quickie” meals. Some people may ask, “But where is the time for all this in today’s world?” To me, this is the best movie made about food and is a must watch for every food lover out there. It teaches you to take pleasure in the little things in life.

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We first catch the glimpse of food inside a place where every cinephile loves spending their time: The movie theatre. A dapper looking gent – one of the protagonists of this story – walking in with a lady by his arm. He sits down and a group of waiters places a basketful of food and champagne on a table in front of him. He then looks at the camera and starts talking to us,  acknowledging our presence as “another movie watcher” just like him, and confides in us his annoyance for people who chomp their snacks noisily inside the theatre. We listen to him and we nod our head in agreement – that is, of course, if you are one of those people who don’t like the idea of eating anything inside a theatre. He then hears a fellow audience member doing precisely that and he unleashes his fury on him. The food that is placed in front of this gentleman, however, remains untouched. All we see him do is sip some of that champagne. Maybe this is Itami’s way of telling us that a theatre is no place to eat your food, no matter how hungry you are. The movie on the screen then begins and for a while, I thought this is one of those “movie within a movie” movies, but it’s not. I guess you can call it a black comedy. Itami was a highly idiosyncratic filmmaker and he knew how to blend the comic and tragic elements well.

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We have the gentleman from the opening scene and then we have these separate characters who are on the quest to find the ultimate ramen (Japanese for noodles). Seeing the dishes presented before us will make you despise that shitty instant noodles you had once upon a time as a bachelor or student living in a hostel. The film that is showing on the screen is about two truck drivers and the younger of the two (played by Ken Watanabe) is reading a novel about an old food connoisseur who is teaching a young man (again played by Watanabe) how to eat noodles the proper way. It’s a beautiful, ritualistic process and the description of it, coupled with the visuals, makes your mouth water. And this is only the beginning. Wait till you go through the rest of the film. Anyway, these two stop at a noodle shop run by a middle-aged woman named Tampopo. She is not doing too well in her business. They somehow get involved in her life. She treats them like food critics and asks their advice on her noodles. Their opinion is honest and she is not pleased to hear that. However, they decide to help her out and wants to turn her place into the best noodle joint in the country.

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This is pretty much the basic premise of the film, which is interspersed with the sub-plot of the gentleman of whom I mentioned earlier. Now, let me talk about my favorite scene in the film. It is a scene that is not in any way related to the main characters. But it’s about food and I almost died laughing. Okay, this is how it goes: A group of high-level executives from a company goes to a five-star restaurant with the intention of ordering a grand meal. One of them is accompanied by his subordinate and he is being mistreated. They all sit down to order and each of them takes a look at the menu and have no clue what to order. They run their eyes through the various items until one of them orders something that he is not sure that he wants to eat but he orders it anyway. The others follow suit and they all order the same thing until the waiter moves toward the subordinate to take his order. This guy, to the utter disbelief and embarrassment of his superiors, seems to have good taste and apparently knows a lot about food. He doesn’t give a shit. He is only trying to please himself. Itami has made the superiors’ faces look so red that they almost glow. I bet he is not going to be mistreated again. Maybe they’ll make him one of their board members and take pointers from him on how to look cool in front of others.

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