the meaning of food: Japan

Understanding Japan in 12 foodscenes of Tampopo

the meaning of food: japan

Tampopo has been wildly recognized as one of the quintessential food films of all times, next to Como agua para chocolate and Babette’s Feast. But unlike those other two films, Tampopo’s storyline is not only about enjoying food. It deals much more with a deeper cultural (Japanese) knowledge of food. As a western viewer it might come in handy to understand some of these meanings before you go and watch the film. So here’s a not to be missed guide to Tampopo’s Japan in 12 food scenes.

1 no crisps

Meaning: film is stylish theatre
In the opening scene, we are immediately confronted with a mirror image of ourselves. We see a film theater with someone eating crisps. Not done, says the protagonist directly to us, while drinking champagne and eating cheese and sandwiches. It is immediately clear that this film is not a Hollywood style of storytelling. The style of the film with sketches refers to traditional Japanese Kabuki theater with many side stories underlining the theme, rather than the plot. There is also always a narrator speaking directly to the audience. So therefore, Japanese film is like stylish theatre, it has a narrator and you should visit in style. No crisps allowed.

2 say to the pork: "see you later"

Meaning 1: Respect animals, they are equal
Meaning 2: Japanese culture can be over-spiritual.

An old monk explains to a young man how to eat ramen. He has a whole ritual that’s almost a spiritual tea ceremony. Some Westerners think this is really how you should eat your ramen, but really, this is an intern Japanese joke of director Itami Juzo. Ramen is Japanese streetfood, fastfood, modern food and is the contrast to traditional food. Juzo criticizes the sometimes over-spiritualized traditions in Japan, that lack any real meaning. His message throughout the whole film is that Japan is a mix of tradition and modernism, a mix of spirituality and consumerism. That being said, respecting animals is a fundamental Zen value.

3 spaghetti vongole

Meaning 1: The pasta is the same, the culture is different
Meaning 2: Slurping is hard to unlearn.

A funny sidescene in Tampopo is a training of young girls to eat spaghetti vongole properly. This mean; use a fork and a spoon and do not slurp the pasta. Western eating habits are seen as sophisticated. Spaghetti is almost the same as ramen, so the girls are having a hard time not to slurp. Certainly when they see a Western man slurping away. By the way: slurping makes sure that your pasta doesn’t break or become too moist or cold, so it is functional. 

4 peking duck and pork belly

Meaning: Japan has always been plural and international
The film Tampopo was internationally very popular, partly because Itami Juzo used many urban and international references. Many Japanese films have Japanese symbols showing for instance the mountain Fuji, cherry blossom and temples. But this films shows everyday people in a normal Japanese city. They eat regular food and mix traditional food with international adopted cuisine. With the Peking Duck from China and Pork Belly from Korea, the director says: Japan has always been an open and pluriform country, it does not have to maintain a strict autonomy.

5 the dancing shrimp

Meaning 1: Japanese love fresh food, no matter what.
Meaning 2: Sex and death are related.

Despite the fact that it is a Zen thing to respect animals, Japan, like many Asian countries have food habits in eating live animals. The dancing shrimp scene shows a skinned and live shrimp that dances to a drunken death. In another scene a live turtle is killed, a scene that was deleted for American audience. Japanese simply love fresh food, being alive is therefore perfect freshness. In the particular scene, the yakuza is making love with his sweetheart, showing that sex and death are closely related. 

6 squeezing peaches

Meaning 1: don’t be fresher then I am
Meaning 2: I’m here, I’m not dead yet

In a supermarket an old woman squeezes peaches and brie. This scene is difficult to understand for Westerners. Japan is the most aged country in the world and faces an aging and shrinking population. But aged people do not have an active role in society and face loneliness. The old lady squeezes the young and delicate food to even the balance: don’t be more beautiful then I am, I make you just as unattractive as I am. Another possible meaning is that she wants to get the playful attention of the supermarket owner, since elderly people are ignored in society.

7 the 1980 chateau pichon lalande

Meaning: Quality has nothing to do with economic class
In the film the widow called Tampopo is looking for the perfect ramen. She searches an old master and finds him in a group of bums, living in the woods, gathering garbage food. Unlike what you expect from bums, they have great knowledge of food and drinks. They are very cultural and know how to taste a great wine as the Chateau Pichon Lalande, and criticize the best haute cuisine restaurants. This represents a very high Japanese value: quality and culture does not depend on economic class, but from self-cultivation.  

8 consommé, not the boudin style quenelles

Meaning: Japanese conformity is empty
Contrary to the scene of the bums in the woods, this scene represents the opposite. Business men eat in a fancy French restaurant and all the men order exactly the same (consommé) as their boss. This is a habit in Japan, where conformity is important. One servant however does not conform, and orders the boudin style quenelles. He has good taste and does not want to throw that away for the group norm of conformity. This clearly is a critique on the spiritual meaningless cultivation of conformity.
Tampopo oyster

9 the blooded oyster

Meaning: she’s not a virgin anymore.
The particular scene was controversial since the grown up yakuza is being kissed by a clearly underaged oyster girl. The symbolism can hardly be missed. An oyster is an aphrodisiac, the symbol for a vagina. The girl offers her oyster to the man, he eats it and bleeds, a clear reference to the broken hymen. 

10 the perfect ramen

Meaning: learning is the basis of perfection
Japan has a tradition in master (sensei) and student relations. Tampopo follows exactly the Japanese rituals of training. First of all: the student asks the master to train, not the other way around. Second; she follows the typical Japanese training regime (seishin) which comprises both a spiritual as a physical training. Then she searches for the components of the perfect ramen: the best ingredients, the best techniques and the best hospitality. Every mean is allowed, even stealing secret recipes. She teaches herself perfection throught the experience of many others. And they are all her masters, they are normal everyday people in everyday life. Ergo: life is school. 
Tampopo new noodlebar

11 the new noodlebar

Meaning: inner mastery first, style and looks last.
Only after Tampopo finally finds her perfect noodle, she has a stylish make over. Not only does she buy new clothes, her noodle bar has a make over as well. This is the final step of perfection, and she clearly makes the step from a somber looking bar to a bright lit white and modern noodle bar. Her masters are proud and leave, knowing that their teachings are done.

12 broken egg yolk

Meaning: Orgasm
Probably the most famous animated gif of the film: the egg yolk being tossed from the mouth of the yakuza to his mistress. The fun is to keep the egg yolk whole while tossing, but after a few times the mistress can’t hold it any longer and the yolk pours out of her mouth. Well, we know women can ejaculate, but this is something!
Food, play, business, and the Image of Japan in Itami Juzo’s Tampopo. (in reel food, 2004)
Food and the Postmodern in the work of Itami Juzo, Thimothy Iles, 2017
Wies Sanders, 10. April 2019
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