Starting tonight, New York City’s Film Forum will be screening a restored print of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985), and it is set to expand in the coming weeks across the country. If such a thing as a “quintessential ramen movie” exists, Tampopo is ostensibly it. Fashioned after an Italian Spaghetti Western, earning it the moniker "Ramen Western," Tampopo is beloved in most corners forits pointedly hilarious marriage of food and eroticism, assigning coital bliss to eating a meticulously crafted bowl of ramen.
Tampopo, the Japanese word for dandelion, is a movie with multiple subplots all jostling for dominance. The main one hinges on a recent widow, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami's wife until his death in 1997), running a bootstrapped ramen-ya just outside of Tokyo. Her husband's death has left Tampopo flattened and dazed, and she has inherited his roadside ramen shop; ramen is her lifeline. The problem is that her ramen isn't very good. It has sincerity but little soul. There's a scene roughly fifteen minutes into the film that underlines the delicate genius of Tampopo and its particular understanding of human ecstasy. Two benevolent, burly men (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken Watanabe) swoop into the shop after rescuing Tampopo's young son from being pummeled by bullies and decide to help Tampopo better her craft.
Tampopo gives the men lodging for the night. The next morning, the men are sitting around a table as Tampopo cooks. The camera stays in a long shot that frames all of the characters; Tampopo's son comments on how much he loves his mom's cooking—especially her noodles, prompting one of the older men to comment, "Well, her noodles..." His tone is hesitant but critically disapproving. Once her son is out of earshot, Tampopo sits down at the table and asks if her noodles really are that bad. The camera shifts to a medium close-up of Tampopo in that moment, framing her as she, meek and frazzled, explains that she’s tried so hard to make good food since her husband died. Before a beat can pass, she begs that they tell her the truth—is her ramen really that bad? Miyamoto plays this scene beautifully; it's a a humorously drawn-out apology, and her body language is diffident, as if she's terribly embarrassed to be speaking at all.
Miyamoto will be in attendance at Film Forum's screening tonight, and the scene takes on even more subtextual charge thirty years on—in 1997, she became Itami's widow herself. He died rather mysteriously after falling off the roof of his office building; reigning consensus suggests he did so of his own volition, but there's a persistent rumor that he died at the hands of a yakuza (Japan's covert organized crime syndicate) faction. It's this early scene, I think, that lays the groundwork for Tampopo's most keen observation: that the joy we ascribe to life's pleasures—food, sex—is always rooted in our need to stave off its pain.
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Tampopo will be playing at Film Forum starting tonight, Friday, October 21, until Thursday, November 3. Star Nobuko Miyamoto will be in attendance tonight and tomorrow. The restored print of the film is set to expand across America shortly.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.