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I love food movies (especially when they’re cold food movies) but there is absolutely no (food) movie out there that’s better than the 1985 film Tampopo (タンポポ). Even when we’re rating outside the “food movie” spectrum (is there an Oscars category for that?), I’d still put this movie in my top 10 (and I bet I’ve seen at least twelve movies in my life, so that’s pretty good). But still, unlike other “food movies” out there, I’d argue that this one has the most to teach about life, the universe and everything. Deep Thought figured out the question – this movie, my friends, is the answer. Oh, and did I mention Ken Watanabe’s in this movie? He’s a young’un.

Zen And The Art Of Making Ramen

Tampopo is about food. But besides food (if you’re into plots, and things like that), it’s also about a pair of truck drivers that stop at a small local ramen shop to get some grub. After getting into a fight with one of the other patrons, Goro (the main truck driver) wakes up in Tampopo’s house (the owner of the Ramen shop). She asks him what he thinks of her noodles (I swear, not sexual innuendo… okay, maybe), and he says they were pretty terrible. Eventually, this leads him to agree to help her to make a better ramen shop (and better ramen too). The story is about all the things they do to make her ramen better. Think of Rocky, but instead of Sylvester Stallone you have someone training to make ramen.

Like many good films, it has comedy, it has romance, and it even has some action… but most importantly, it has food. Delicious, tasty, food (and Ken Watanabe). But, it’s not just about food… it’s about being human. And what does every human relate to, more than almost anything else? You guessed it – the tasty stuff you put into your mouth. Not everyone can relate to Vin Diesel flipping cars and jumping off things… but food? Heck yeah. Everyone’s eaten food before.

Tampopo Psychology & Philosophy

Before we even get to the clips, let’s look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Have you heard of it before? The idea is that you have to fulfill the bottom rung before you can move up to the next rung, and so on and so forth. If you don’t have your “Belonging Needs,” for example, you can’t start filling your “Esteem Needs.”

Tampopo is about the “Physiological Needs.” That’s like the need to breathe, or the need to eat and drink. Food, I’d say, is the most interesting of all the physiological needs, but it goes much further than that. Tampopo’s story is based on the physiological (fooooood!), but it stems out to show how food also gets involved in everything else, more so than other physiological needs. The message is that food is everything and food is everywhere. Even if you have everything, food still shows up. Food is what ties us all together as humans.

Despite there being humans throughout the movie, I wouldn’t say that the real characters were people at all. I’d be more prone to say that the main characters were food. Specifically, Ramen.

If The Main Character Is Ramen…

Normally main characters in movies are folks like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. In Tampopo, I’d say the main character is just Ramen. Like any movie, though, there’s a supporting cast of all sorts of other foods too, all somehow relating to humanity as a whole. Food is the thing that binds us and food is the thing that makes us people.

While the main storyline is about Tampopo progressing through life via ramen and the making of it, the movie is broken up with little short-films that pop up inbetween scenes. All of these short films can probably stand alone, but together they have a bigger message. Despite the fact that they’re all about food, they’re all about how food is an important part of life. No matter who you are, what culture you are, or how you live… food is still there, and is also the key to happiness.

It’s like a sort of Tampopo Philosophy, if you will. A way of life and a way to live. I for one am ready to welcome my new Ramen overlords.

Living Your Life By Tampopo

While the overarching main storyline is an important part of the puzzle, it’s only one piece. Live your life well, improve, spend time with other people, work hard… these are good lessons. But, we mustn’t forget about the littler things in life. These things are shown in the short films within the film. I’d like to go through each one by one, going over the lesson it teaches about life.

The Little Things

This is one of the first scenes in the film. The amount of love and emotion that the master puts into the ramen seems absurd (and kind of is). But I think that it’s just bringing to the surface a love for food that everyone has (but have just forgotten about). When you have something a lot, you start taking it for granted. If you see a view too many times, if you hang out with the same person too much, if you eat every day (I bet you do)… you’ll lose the passion and love that the Ramen master clearly has for the ramen, even though he’s eaten the ramen hundreds, probably thousands of times. It reminds us to enjoy the little things – to see the beauty, so to speak. So, look around you. What have you taken for granted. What have you forgotten is truly beautiful in your life? You should try to see things for what they really are: Amazing.

Humanity

The Spaghetti Scene is one of the funnier ones. The group of Japanese women are learning how to eat like “proper” Western diners, but when it comes down to it, they all find out that it really doesn’t matter (it’s the food that matters). Food isn’t so much a “national” thing, or something like that. It’s something that spans across all peoples and all culture. It’s something that reminds us that we’re all just people, and we’re all the same. There’s no one culture or person who’s better than the other. We all do things differently, sure, but those differences are just skin deep. When it comes to being human, and when it comes to eating (which is what all humans share), we all eat exactly the same. If you remember that, you’ll realize that people aren’t all that scary. They’re the same, like you and I. We’re all just *gasp* humans!

Sex

Okay, so things get pretty weird right about here. You start getting the erotic-food stuff here (happens a couple times in the movie, actually). But you know what? Food is as important as sex, if not more important. So, why not mix the two? Actually, I think I know why… this is weird.

Living

Food isn’t just about taste, though. It’s about texture as well. You know that crunch you get when you bite a crispy potato chip? It wouldn’t be the same without the crunch, even if the taste was exactly the same. This lady might be crazy, but she shows how important texture on food is. There’s something kind of admirable about the crazy lady, though. She’s bold. She goes out and feels everything, even when she isn’t really supposed to. In the end, I think we all kind of want to be like this lady. I want to be able to go out and talk to strangers. I don’t want to feel like I need to do what society demands of me all the time. I want to be free – and this woman embodies that. Sure, she’s breaking some rules, but you gotta break some rules to feel some peaches, ammirite?

Living sometimes also involves risks, though. This old man is told that he can’t eat this, that, and all sorts of other things. As soon as his daughter leaves, he orders all the things he’s not supposed to. Why? Because you gotta live. I think sometimes we’re too cautious in life. But in the end, you still become an old man (aka you probably won’t die if you take a risk, but you won’t live if you don’t). So, you have to make sure you take risks. Taking risks is as important as eating, I think this scene is saying. What risks have you put off just because you’re scare of a worst-case-scenario that probably won’t happen?

Giving

I also feel sorry for these kinds of kids. Their parents tell them what they can and can’t eat. To a certain point, that’s probably a good idea… but to never have ice cream? Crazzzy! This scene is about learning to give to those who don’t have what you have. Do you have the ice cream? What about that poor kid in some third world who doesn’t? Being giving not because you want to get something back is important. Give just for the sake of the happiness of the other person… that’s what this scene is saying. What can you give to someone less fortunate? What can you do to make someone happier who doesn’t have what you have?

Hierarchy

There’s a hierarchy in life that most of us follow, at least to a certain degree. I remember watching this scene in some Japanese Society class. The highest ranking person gets to order what they want. Everyone else has to pretend like they’re ordering what they want too, but they have to actually just order the same thing as the top dog. The very last subordinate in this scene, however, doesn’t know this (or forgot), so he takes his time ordering what he wants. I think this scene begs a question… why do you do what everyone else does when it makes you unhappy? Surely this person would not get the full enjoyment out of the meal if he had to order the same thing as everything else. It doesn’t actually hurt anyone if he orders what makes him happy, so why shouldn’t he? Why should we do what society asks us to do when it doesn’t make sense (sometimes it does make sense, though, that’s the distinguisher you have to figure out). As is often the case, food represents happiness – why not choose to take it?

Happiness Via Simplicity

Speaking of happiness, this isn’t one of the “short film” bits in Tampopo, but it is a main storyline scene I liked a lot. They meet up with some homeless folks who help share some ramen secrets with Tampopo. But, the thing I noticed most was their happiness. They don’t have homes and they’re on the street… despite this, they’re so happy. While this isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of homeless people, it does paint an ideal picture. This group of homeless people latch onto food as their source of happiness. Despite their conditions, they strive to make and eat good food out of what they have, and through all of that they’re so happy, too. It just shows that we can be happy if we have basic things as well. We don’t have to have a Playstation or iPad or whatever to be happy. In fact, people with nothing are happier than you. Why is that? Because they have the basics. They don’t need these other things. The message here is that things don’t make you happy – food, companionship, and happiness make you happy.

On Dying

Now, it wouldn’t be a full story if there wasn’t some death in there, too. Death is a part of life, unfortunately, and in Tampopo food permeates this death more than anything else.

This is definitely the saddest scene in Tampopo, but also one of the most touching. Despite being nearly dead, the only thing that gets her up is being able to cook a last meal for her family. As soon as she sees that her family is enjoying her food and taken care of, she promptly dies right there, while the food is still warm. When she does, it’s the food they pay attention to, though. It’s her last meal, and you have to eat it while it’s hot. There’s something about food that brings people together, no? There’s always talk about how family’s should eat at the dinner table together, without television and whatnot. Spend some quality time together around food.

Food is also something that’s very memorable. If you have a relative that’s passed away, you often remember them for the food they made for you. Why? First, because food utilizes several senses (touch, sight, smell, and taste), which makes it more memorable. Second, food is a way to take care of others. To provide and care for them. When you make food for someone else, you feel good about yourself and they feel good about you. Food binds people, and food creates friendships and families (there’s a reason why people say “the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”).

And then there’s this death scene. As he’s laying there, dying, he pretty much only talks about food. Not only that, he talks about sharing the food with his lady. Even in his last breaths, all he’s talking about is food. Why? Because food is the thing that brings us together. Food is just as much about life as it is about death. Hopefully, though, there’s no regrets about your life when you die. So, make sure you go out and hunt those boars and take their Yam guts out and grill them now before it’s too late, right?

Or, Maybe It’s Just A Movie…

Maybe… but I don’t think so. There’s too many messages about life and about happiness, and food is the thing that brings all those life lessons together. If you haven’t seen Tampopo, I’d highly recommend it. I’m sure there’s places to get a DVD, though I didn’t see it on Netflix. You’re also able to watch the entire film on YouTube… though, you know, you’re probably not supposed to, or something. But it’s there, nonetheless, and in decent quality considering the age of the film.

No matter how you watch it, though, it’s still one of the greatest movies ever made (in my opinion). If you like food and you like people, it’s hard not to like this film as well… and I think most people like food and people, so what are you waiting for?

P.S. Let us know in the comments what you think about this movie. What life lessons have you gotten from all these food-filled scenes?

  • nagz

    i just watched it last week. nice story. although i didn’t fall for the cowboy-guy gimmick, but hey, it was 85 after all ;)

  • Heather Meadows

    I love Tampopo! I watched it in the late 90s while pursuing my Japan Studies minor at the University of Kentucky. Of all the films I saw then, Tampopo was the one that stuck with me ever since. (When I went to Japan for the first time in 2001, I was delighted to find a shop called Tampopo in a train station.)

  • http://twitter.com/BlueKutsu Paul

    Great movie. If anyone reads the comments before the main post, don’t ruin it by watching all the clips – watch first. =P

  • http://www.facebook.com/Scottlavigne Scott Lavigne

    Another good movie about food is Udon. Starring Yusuke Santamaria. :D Give it a look!

  • Isocracy

    Oh Koichi.. This may be the most brilliant article you have written so far (at least in the sense of it’s emotional content) – I watched Tampopo about a month back and it hasn’t left my head, like so many movies do these days.

    Excellent review, worthy of some pretentious newspaper.
    I now want your take on Funky Forrest.

  • Rudyhou

    ok, i’m definitely gonna search this movie on youtube.  MUST see.  i’ve heard of the title before, but never knew it’s got to do with food.  i’m a big sucker when it comes to food related movies.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Aww, I watched that movie …over 10 years ago, but I still remember it and I LOVED it!!! Your post makes me wanna watch it again!
    And now I’m hungry and want to eat some yummy ramen! It’s too cold this winter anyways :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=630637211 Brandon Inoue

    Good article about the philosophical side of Tanpopo.  I know a few Japanese majors that HATED this film.  They viewed it as a waste of time.  However, if it was such a waste of time, why do all Japanese culture classes require viewing it? 

    Aside from that I recommend that Japanese language students watch this film at least twice.  Once when they start learning about Japan.  Again when they’ve lived there for a while.

    I found that viewing this movie provided me some insights into the culture as well as the mindset of Japanese people.  There are a lot of things to make you laugh on a much shallower level.
    I especially enjoyed the satirical view of Japanese cultural itself.  Especially the Etiquette Class and the Ordering at the French Restaurant scenes.
    I can’t help but feel a sense of Deja Vu when it comes to mother cooking the last dinner for her family scene.  I guess a lot of the older generation of Japanese people feel the same way about it.  I swear that she would rise from her sickbed if it meant cooking for the sake of my family’s happiness at the dinner table.  Then again, I’m sure this is a worldwide phenomena and not just limited to the Japanese culture itself.

  • Jason

    I think the hobo scene is more complex than you mention. It’s not really about having the basics, it’s about the hobo’s refined sense of taste. The wealthy upper class can certainly afford expensive ingredients but it’s, to use common parlance, lipstick on a pig. For example, while finishing off the last slug of wine from a discarded bottle one hobo discusses how the amount of rainfall in the Bordoux region affected that season’s grapes and the wine’s taste.

    The next scene shows one of the hobos making the young boy omelet rice. The hobo possesses grace and purpose in the kitchen, each maneuver is controlled to not waste energy, and his technique is spot on. It’s clear that this guy could get a high paying job in any 5-star French restaurant. The fact chooses to live as a vagabond when he could have serious employment illustrates that these aren’t just homeless people happy with the “basics”, rather they live via an alternative set of existential rules and norms.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Just a movie?  Perish the thought.  This classic encapsulates all that is sacred about our time on earth within the guise of a deceptively simple premise:  namely, that the enjoyment of food is tantamount to the enjoyment of life. 

    If you haven’t seen this film, then here’s what you must do:  Go to your local video shop, carefully select it from the shelf, and run out the door screaming “Best Japanese film ever made!”  Don’t bother stopping at the cash register, because there isn’t time for that.  You gotta get home an watch it.  A little “banzai” would be a nice touch, too. 

    If they don’t have it, then breathe deeply, calmly ask them to order it, wait a week, and when it comes in, kindly thank them, and then follow the above procedure.  Banzai!  Anyway, that’s what I did and I still maintain I have no regrets, although it was mildly embarrassing when I had to return it the following day and apologize to the manager. 

  • Stuuuuu

    Great article! Had been meaning to watch this for a while and this pushed me to do so. What else is on your list of food movies? Not Japanese, but I recommend Stephen Chow’s “God of Cookery”. It follows his standard movie formula (Chow is a selfish coward who specializes in X occupation -> falls in love girl -> transforms into confident bad ass in last 5 minutes and redeems himself) but it rules nonetheless.

    Also, regarding the crazy old lady scene – I interpreted it differently. I thought it was about respect for food. Food is an integral part of human survival. Living in a developed country with it readily available in supermarkets (that we don’t have to pick/harvest/hunt/kill etc) is of great convenience. Meanwhile entire countries are starving to death. This convenience often gets disrespected by the selfish. The wasteful old lady brutalizing the food needed to be chastised – and the flyswatter dude was the man for the job. It looked like he was gonna cry when he picked up the weeping chunk of fruit she mangled. SO he went to absurd lengths to tell her off (with a badass commando crawl) and it was awesome.

  • S Taradash

    When I couldn’t explain to people why I’d spent my days off roaming around looking for good noodle shops, I could show them Tampopo and they’d get it.

    They still thought I was cracked, but at they got it. Fantastic film.

  • Sorata

    Hey there Koichi, I think it’s a great movie, it’s not just another movie, it got something that can put people together again. I couldn’t remember what was important, but as i was seeing this movie I could reminde what i want, or at least what i think i need, and that isn’t that much, it’s hard work, in everything i can do.

    I loved the Hobo scene, I like how they know about tastes and things that are only supposed to be upper class stuff, that makes me wonder about the potential in every human being. The dead woman scene is also very touching, I loved it too.

    Films like that can give you a second chance to live, i love that kind of movies. I hope some day I can go and eat some ramen in Japan.

    Grettings from Mexico!.

  • Chris

    Thanks for writing a review of this movie. I have watched Tampopo maybe a dozen of times, it is my favourite movie. And each time I watch it I discover new details and aspects. By the way, it is also an homage to Japanese food, which is marvelous as well.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OMHO6ER5QJE3SIZ35VAXIRCLYM Stephan

    Best Film ever! Period!

  • kazia

    amazing movie. make you hungry.