Ramen, the now-ubiquitous noodle soup, was originally a Chinese dish brought to Japan before the advent of the Sino-Japanese war in 1894. It remained only mildly popular among tradesmen until after World War II, when a gigantic import of American wheat hit Japanese shores. From there, ramen exploded in ubiquity and popularity, eventually making its way back Stateside, where it settled as an inexpensive quick-pack meal for generations of college kids. In both Japan and in America, ramen was seen as a pleasurable but not very sophisticated food item, not usually worthy of too much culinary analysis or epicurean exploration. Ramen may have been popularly compared to french fries. Sure, everyone loves them, but they don’t exactly go very far fill out the foodie’s flavor profile.
In the last 20 years or so, during the rise of a new vanguard of gourmand culture in the U.S., ramen has grown in status in the culinary world, and both American and Japanese chefs have sought to expand on the basic meal, adding new spices, profiles, and bold unusual fusion flavors into a once-standard dish. Like many cultural movements in America, something that was once considered “low” has now been made into something cosmopolitan, premiere, and, in some cases, downright bourgeois. Like blue jeans, t-shirts, coffee, beer, cupcakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and science fiction films, ramen is now a chichi destination of hipsters and aesthetes in addition to being a down-and-dirty bowl of comfort.
One may easily point to Juzo Itami’s excellent 1985 western comedy Tampopo – now available on a handsome Criterion Collection Blu-ray – as the definite pivot point for ramen. Released in America 30 years ago this September, Tampopo is a celebration of the culinary experience that has rarely been matched in the world of cinema. Only Babette’s Feast and Big Night manage to explore flavor and cooking as intimately, and even those films don’t offer as wide a musing on the variety of taste pleasure as Tampopo. It remains, to this day, one of the best – if not the best – film about food ever made.
Tampopo is mostly the story of the title character (played by Nobuko Miyamoto) and a wandering cowboy named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who join forces – in a very pulpy way – to build and operate the world’s best ramen joint. They discuss ingredients, contemplate the perfect bowl of ramen, hone the skills needed to remember orders, and, at the end of the day, enjoy a delicious meal, content that they are reaching perfection. This story is light, fun, mostly played for laughs, and ultimately wistfully satisfying.
Interspersed throughout their story is a series of unconnected vignettes surrounding food and eating. There is a young couple who incorporate food into their lovemaking. There is a school of manners attempting to teach young girls not to slurp their spaghetti, drowned out by the slurping of those around them. There’s a heartbreaking short about a dying mother who manages to prepare one last meal for her family before keeling over right in front of them.
Tampopo is tapping into several well-understood notions specific to the Japanese experience; an exploration of Japanese cinema has revealed repeated appearances of the role “perfection” plays into everyday Japanese life. But Tampopo, in its epicurean attitudes, in its open-minded approach to the food experience, in its joyous need to cross cultural borders with the sense of taste, is delightfully universal. Tampopo has nothing but enthusiasm for food, and, by extension, enthusiasm for a connected humanity.
Beyond its themes of food, however, Itami seems to be infusing his film with a comment on the way genre operates. Tampopo is ostensibly a western which, in 1987, was seen as more or less moribund. The lingering cultural perception of cowboy movies in America was that of the archetype, and, despite many classics in the genre, many in the general public still viewed westerns to be cheap genre entertainment. But, just as Itami seeks to beef up, as it were, the cultural significance of ramen, so too does he wield a “low” genre. He uses the well-known and the popularly unsophisticated to unlock the deepest of sensual pleasures. Also, given that movie cowboys essentially originated in Japan as samurai, Itami may simply be taking it all back, bringing it full circle, hugging you in a warm multicultural embrace of smiles and noodles.
Despite its lightness and joyous comedy, Tampopo remains more than a trifle. It plays like a pleasant memory, a nice evening, or a halcyon piece of nostalgia.
Top Image: Toho
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.