“The first ramen western!” proclaims the tagline of Juzo Itami’s 1985 food comedy Tampopo. Here, instead of the lonesome cowboy wanderer and his sidekick of the traditional western, we get a pair of Japanese truck drivers: the rugged Tsutomu Yamazaki as Goro and a baby-faced Ken Wantanabe as Gun. They breeze into town for a pit stop, only to find themselves coming to the aid of a single mother (Nobuko Miyamoto as the titular Tampopo) and her young son. Together, they transform her late husband’s floundering noodle shop into the best ramen restaurant in the neighbourhood.
This take on the Lone Ranger and Tonto tale is framed by a series of vignettes, with food serving as the sole tangential relation among them. While often light and humorous, these mini-arcs also offer an opportunity for Itami’s camera to relish in the sensuousness and tactility of food. In one, a junior executive upstages his superiors with his culinary expertise at a business lunch. This segues into a women’s etiquette class on how to daintily eat spaghetti, ending in a cacophony of lip-smacking slurps. Other small portraits include a grocery store clerk who squares off against an old woman obsessed with squeezing produce, a little boy who makes a silent, wide-eyed plea for ice cream, a dying mother who rouses herself to cook one last meal for her family, and a Yakuza gangster and his lover, who engage in bizarre acts both culinary and carnal. Each of these vignettes operates in much the same vein—social situations comically disrupted by the unseemly consumption or presence of food—save for the latter: that of the gangster (Kôji Yakusho) and his girlfriend (Fukumi Kuroda). The narrative thread of their love affair in Tampopo, which takes up more screen time than any of the other side-plots, is no less focused on the odd intersections between food and cravings than the rest, except for one difference: sex. Here, uncouth messiness is relished as each act of intercourse is augmented by the incorporation of food—from the pedestrian (licking whipped cream off each other’s bodies), to the strange (using live prawns to tickle flesh). These libidinally charged moments culminate in an extended close-up of an unbroken egg yolk being passed back and forth between Yakusho and Kuroda’s mouths. In a film concerned with edible pleasures, it is a moment that stands out: an image that conjures revulsion as much as eroticism.
How does one account for such a scene in what is otherwise a finger-licking foodie film? It could be, as academic Michael Ashkenazi points out, an attempt to sketch out the film’s cultural context: “like many other societies, the Japanese are obsessed with sex, and, like many other societies, often find that sex is a difficult and culture-ridden process.”[i] Food, then, is a not-so-subtle substitute for sex, and Tampopo offers an allegorical exploration of socio-cultural relationships mitigated through edible goods. This is hardly new terrain, as the sexual and the edible have long been linked in both desire and revulsion. Though Ashkenazi’s analysis is compelling, he focuses mainly on plot elements, without ever dealing with cinematography. By privileging content over form, he fails to account for the film as a film. It is moving food photography, which both illustrates the robust appetites of the cast and appeals to the senses of the audience. Such mouthwatering visuals attest to the thematic underpinnings Ashkenazi overlooks: consumption and pleasure. Tampopo is an exploration of food and cravings mediated through the act of watching a film.
The crumbs of this claim come in the film’s opening scene, in which the dapperly dressed gangster and his girlfriend enter a half-filled movie theatre followed by three servants. As they sit in the front row, the servants place a table in front of them. The camera lingers briefly on the spread of champagne, cheese, and charcuterie before refocusing on the lovers. Suddenly, the gangster stands and leans closer to the frame, addressing the camera directly:
Oh, so you’re at the movies too. What are you eating? You know the noises people make in cinemas.
Eating potato chips, crumpling wrappers. I really can’t stand it.[…]I don’t want interruptions.
They say when you die you see something like a movie. A life kaleidoscoped into a few seconds.
I look forward to that movie. A man’s last movie. I definitely don’t want it interrupted.
This is a mode of address that Ashkenazi attributes to Japanese Kabuki theatre, but it is also a Brechtian moment. That is, a self-referential nod to the film medium. When the film-within-a-film begins, the shot cuts to black-and-white footage of Goro and Gun driving on the highway in the rain, over which Tampopo‘s opening credits are superimposed: the movie that the gangster and his mistress are seeing is Tampopo itself—a movie in which they also appear as characters.
This film framework disrupts a distanced, passive viewing experience, meaning sensuousness is not merely located in the images onscreen, but is engaged in a dialogue with the spectator’s “lived-body.” Coined by film scholar Vivian Sobchack, this idea posits a body that always makes use of the full range of perception when making sense of the world[ii]—especially at the cinema. In other words, films are not merely seen, but felt. Itami’s close-ups on bowls of steaming ramen (explicitly visual and slurping-ly aural) are imbued with the power to stimulate memories of other senses (in this case scent and taste).
But it is not all tantalizing tastes, as the body is susceptible to both desire and disgust. Take, for instance, the epicurean Yakuza cracking an egg and messily sliding the yoke into his mouth. It is a moment that seems poised to invoke another bodily response: one of abject fascination. That is, the gut-churning instinct to look away in disgust (as the slimy raw egg passes between the lips of the gangster and into his lover’s mouth) and the weird yet satisfying compulsion to look at that which disgusts (mirrored in the obvious physical pleasure the lovers are experiencing). As the gangster’s mistress is overcome by orgasmic bliss, she bites into the yolk.
This oscillation between revulsion and attraction is intimated in other moments in Tampopo, as well. Shots occasionally linger on some of the more unappetizing elements of gourmet culture—whole ducks, pig heads, live shellfish. The Yakuza recounts a story about the time he cut his lip on the shell of a raw oyster, dotting the mollusc with red as a young female oyster diver tenderly licked the blood from the corner of his mouth. Even in the main narrative, when the recently widowed Tampopo asks Goro to tell her the truth about her mediocre noodles, he admits that “they’ve got sincerity, but they lack guts,” phrasing that references innards and entrails as much as culinary fortitude. Bodily enjoyment is intrinsically connected to physical embodiment—and to own a body is to experience both the sensual and the strange, messy processes necessary to function.
In his final appearance in Tampopo, the gangster is felled in a drive-by shooting. With his dying breath, he describes to his weeping lover a meal he never got to enjoy: yam sausages, made from the gorged intestines of a wild boar. “When you shoot a boar, you immediately slit its belly and take its guts and grill them over an open fire,” he explains—all while his own viscera spills onto the pavement. His yearning description becomes his last words and his symbolic last meal—as much for himself as the audience. When he whispers to his lover, “I would have loved to eat them with you,” he may well be speaking directly to us. In an inversion of his first moments on screen, he looks into the camera and whispers, “my last movie is starting”—one final reminder of our participation in the act of looking. To paraphrase Susan Sontag[iii], the satisfaction of looking is complicated by the pleasure of flinching. Death stares the gangster down, but he (and we) cannot look away.