Monday, October 11, 2010

a fistful of noodles

I decided to watch Juzo Itami’s Tampopo as the focus of my food movie paper because it was fun. Fun when it was previewed for class, and much more in its entirety. The way food is used to address certain social issues was refreshing to me, from the duties of an (undead) mother/housewife, to a slight bout of Occidentalism and “proper table manners” regarding spaghetti. 

At the heart of it it’s a story of making the best ramen house out there, where Goro the square-jawed, Clint Eastwood-esque trucker gathers a bunch of guys to help a single middle-aged mother –Tampopo make her restaurant better,  included in his group is his partner Gun who  turns out to be a good makeover artist, Pisken (which Goro engages in a fistfight twice in the movie) Tampopo’s drunkard, childhood friend and one-time suitor who works as a contractor and interior designer,  a former doctor/classy hobo group leader who is a master of Soup making, and a Chaperone who is a noodle expert, though the names of the latter escape me.

 Throughout the movie they work to transform the restaurant, the food, even Tampopo herself until she is completely remade into a confident and charming cook. Different aspects were looked at when they began her transformation, paying very close attention to the tiniest details, from looking at the customer right, the slightest texture in the noodle, and ingredients. They are presented with the most caution (even in the beginning where there was a section involving the proper consumption of ramen), very clearly and in a serious, tone like they were matters of life or death, which regarding the circumstances and plot, they kinda were.  To take a break from the seriousness of the main journey plot, we get snippets scattered throughout the film, also focused on food, and how it’s treated and looked at by the society.

It speaks not only of the food itself but of the values of the people cooking it. One old woman was obsessed with squeezing food products. Of course this is a practice that is done to check for freshness within a certain product, but this little old lady carries it to the extreme as the scene played on, squeezing bread, and even cheese commencing a wild goose chase with the clerk. Another was a play on corporate culture using a menu, where the higher, older company brass all settle for eating sole and drinking beer, because they can’t pronounce anything else in the menu—except Heineken. They get rather upstaged by a younger executive who is well versed with wining and dining, but the point of it was that he did not fit in, in a room full of suits who valued near-mechanical monotony.

The aforementioned dying mother/housewife who was still obligated to cook one last dinner for her family, as ordered by his salaryman husband, and of course the erotic food adventures of a white suited yakuza gangster and her lady the yakuza scenes demonstrated the use of shrimps, eggyolk, and oysters all of which of course are considered natural aphrodisiacs, though I never thought they were used in that manner as sexual foreplay tools.

The comedy here lies in the over-the-top relations between food and the feasters, they act in very diverse manners, sometimes playing stereotypes straight or flipping them around to great comedic effect. The scene with the vagrants and their vast knowledge of wines and food ( one of them even knew how to cook a rice omelette) was quite enjoyable and touching to say the least. Food is used here to illustrate and turn around common notions and treatments the Japanese have of it, and one of the best examples was of course the Tampopo plot, which was played out in such a dramatic manner, especially the “ramen duel” dream sequence which played out like a formula western story, the ending credits actually show the start of a person’s lifelong affair with food, showing a mother breastfeeding in the park.

While as a movie it felt like the stories were being told in a rather Attention Deficit Disorderly way, it was a refreshing look at something as simple as cooking good noodle, which reminded me of how the Japanese can write about the most common things in very cool ways, I suddenly remembered the manga Cooking Master boy, which dealt with the quest of a young Chinese cook who lived when cooks were regarded with the same respect as Japanese samurai, and shows like Iron Chef. What makes this a great food movie is that it does not just make food a topic in the movie, it makes it an integral pert of every person in it, to the point that all of the absurd motions and rituals acted out only made sense with the food included. In Tampopo, food was living, and food was loving, and food was loved.

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