Tampopo: An open seat at the table

Colin Rivera, Managing Editor 

What did you have for dinner yesterday? More importantly, who did you share that meal with? These are two questions asked by the Japanese film Tampopo. The comedy by Juzo Itami, originally released in 1985, touts itself as “the first Japanese noodle western.” Through one main story and a series of vignettes, the film explores our relationship with food and our various relationships with each other.

One of the first sketches in the movie involves a master and student as they go out for a meal. The student, eager to appease his elder, watches him and asks him about the proper way to eat ramen. What follows is an intricate process of watching the bowl and rearranging the ingredients inside, all of these steps are in order “to express affection.” Watching the scene, I could not help but feel the absurdity of the amount of ceremony involved upon hearing the phrase, “He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork as if making a major decision in life.” Yet, the absurdity is what makes the movie. The characters’ love of food is an invitation to get to know them better. From knowing how they eat and how they cook, the audience becomes seated at the table with them.

The plot of the movie centers on the character Tampopo, who runs a small restaurant. With the help of two truck drivers, who are surprisingly well versed in food, she seeks to create a great bowl of ramen. As simple as this plot appears to be, it is randomly supplemented by skits depicting people often gathering around a meal; we see a class teaching people how to eat spaghetti, two men conning each other over dinner, and a family’s final meal with their mother. The sketch about the last meal is particularly poignant and helps the viewer to understand the movie. It displays cooking not just as an act within itself, but as an act of love and generosity. It displays eating, again, not just as the act, but as a form of respect and reverence.

The movie evokes the whole spectrum of emotions. To see this in action, I suggest watching this movie with a few of your closest friends and watching their contrasting reactions to the things that happen on the screen. There are some scenes in the movie that different viewers may find unpleasant as they draw a parallel between food, romance, and sexuality. During those scenes, the friend I had brought along to watch the film physically recoiled and turned away, while at others, like the scene with the ramen master, he was fully captivated.

Overall, I would say that this movie is among my favorites that I have watched in a long time. It’s funny, it’s sad, it makes you hungry, and it makes you full. The food draws attention to the dinner table and the people who sit around it, making them as close as our own friends and family.

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