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Tampopo: Ramen for the People

The tumbleweed is so strongly identified with the western that it denotes the genre by its mere presence. A long shot of a dry, dusty road at high noon, the plants rolling by in the desert wind, is about as iconic as the face of the Duke himself. But the fact is that, much like the cowboys John Wayne played, tumbleweeds were colonizers in North America, and only just beginning to appear in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas during the time in which the stories of the American West are set: the first husks of prickly Russian thistle, native to the dry steppes of Eurasia, began rolling across American land in North Dakota in the 1870s, reaching California by 1885, and the species eventually became ubiquitous throughout the West. Like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, the tumbleweed is an import that has become symbolic of a genre considered by many to be uniquely, distinctly American.

Although no tumbleweeds roll across the screen in Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s 1985 “ramen western,” the film is steeped in other tropes of the genre. In its opening, we see the cowboy-hat-wearing Goro and his sidekick, Gun, each with a neckerchief at his throat, ride into town in the cab of a tanker truck and seek out the best bar to sidle up to for . . . a perfect bowl of ramen. In fact, the film itself is a kind of tumbleweed: it is a product of cultural cross-pollination, borrowing from American moviemaking conventions to explore a uniquely Japanese obsession. Along the way, it crafts a populist, utopian vision, not just of food culture but of society as a whole.

When Tampopo was first released in the United States in 1987—long before a pursuit of the perfect noodle like Goro’s became the domain of white hipster foodies here—Roger Ebert wrote that, even if citizens of “the land of sweet corn festivals, bake-offs, and contests for the world’s best chili” could likely identify with the film’s central quest, the kind of ramen it featured would seem foreign to them. But over the decades, U.S. diners have caught up with Goro and Gun (played by a young Ken Watanabe) in their appetite for ramen. Known here in 1987 only as a cheap dorm-room meal—if it was known at all—ramen is now a readily available and reasonably affordable restaurant meal that is sometimes capable of transcendence. In the U.S. today, as has long been the case in Japan, the dish symbolizes a culinary ideal put forward in Tampopo: that taste­ful, informed, lusty appetites—in the film, they quite literally become sexual at times—should belong to the many, not just the wealthy few.

It is not only in the story of Goro, Gun, and Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto)—the owner of the humble shop that the pair of truckers help remake into the picture of ramen excellence—that we see this play out. The film jumps between that central plotline and a series of vignettes that show other aspects of Itami’s egalitarian foodie agenda. In one such scene, a group of young girls seated around a table at an Italian restaurant are shown the proper way of eating spaghetti and clams by a kind of finishing-school teacher: each daintily twisted bite should be eaten silently, she says. With a nearly imperceptible slurp, the teacher tells the girls, “Even the faintest sound . . . is absolutely taboo abroad.”

But as the lesson is going on, a noise familiar to anyone who frequents ramen joints echoes through the otherwise subdued restaurant: the gutsy slurping of noodles. Soon, the girls, too, are eating the spaghetti as they would a bowl of shiro ramen, sucking down each forkful with pleasure, making the kind of racket that Americans might scold their kids for but is perfectly socially acceptable in Japan. On the film’s soundtrack, the slurps nearly crackle, the noise threatening to drown out the clinks and clatters of the restaurant. Eventually, the teacher joins in.

In another vignette, a band of homeless men artfully combine the dregs of high-priced bottles of French wine into their own blends to savor, while in yet another, businessmen in expensive suits are so bound by propriety that they cannot stray from the bland tastes of their superiors when dining at a white-tablecloth restaurant—save for one young man whose epicurism outweighs his awareness of his lowly status.

The place that ramen occupies in food culture is not unlike that of genre films, including westerns, in cinema: it is made for mass consumption and widely available, but it can transcend its popularity to become high art. As many throwaway flicks about shoot-outs at high noon as there are, there are also the films of John Ford (who, by the way, as a first-generation Irish American born in Maine, was a tumbleweed in his own right). As many trash bowls of melted-salt-lick water capped with a quarter inch of pork fat as you may be served, there’s also the kind of noodle soup Tampopo aspires to: tonkotsu broth that tastes clean and rich after sixty hours of simmering, with noodles so springy they almost seem alive.

In a way, westerns are American in the least nationalistic sense: immigrants from diverse backgrounds made them into a financially and artistically successful enterprise. And the stories themselves were sometimes borrowed, if not stolen outright, from other cultures. Long before Itami created Goro in the image of John Wayne, John Sturges traded katanas for revolvers when he remade Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven. And after seeing A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western, Kurosawa wrote the Italian director to say, “It’s a very fine film, but it is my film.” His production company sued Leone for ripping off Kurosawa’s Yojimbo—sometimes shot for shot.

When you consider the number of famous cowboys who were first famous ronin, and the very tumbleweed nature of the western genre itself, it’s not difficult to understand the appeal Tampopo had for a U.S. viewer like Ebert, however exotic he found it at the time. “This very, very Japanese movie, which seems to make no effort to communicate to other cultures, is universally funny almost for that reason,” he wrote.

Indeed, with its noodle-loving cow­boys, Greek-chorus-like band of homeless oenophiles, and Eurocentric culinary references, Tampopo is inarguably a multi­cultural, humanist film. Even if some of the food still looks foreign thirty years after the movie’s release, its liberal social politics—inclusive, culturally diverse, and sexually liberated—will likely resonate with many of today’s American viewers, especially at a moment in our history when the impending dominance of a foreign culture is among the many specters raised by the right in defense of a new breed of nationalism.

The appearance of a taco truck on every corner in the U.S.—a prospect infamously raised by a founder of Latinos for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign—would be a bit akin to what happened with ramen in Japan. Despite there now being a number of Japanese museums dedicated to ramen, fierce competition between regional styles, and local rivalries between shops like Tampopo’s, ramen is a tumbleweed in its own right, an import that has become woven into the heart of Japanese culture. The soup originated in China hundreds of years ago and was first prepared in Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the early nineteenth century (before the two countries went to war). After World War II, it exploded in availability and popularity when the U.S. flooded Japan with cheap wheat—a hedge, ironically, against the influence of Chinese communism on the islands.

By the time Itami made Tampopo, the dish had become more than assimilated in Japan, which has had ramen celebrities since before Momofuku chef David Chang was born. But in putting the best cuisine into the mouths of his youngest and poorest characters, Itami’s vignettes skewer the notion that multicultur­alism is a privilege of wealth, and that taking pleasure in foreign fare must, with each silent bite, involve a disavowal of one’s own culture.

In the vignette where businessmen all order the same meal at a French restaurant, it’s the youngest, most junior employee who breaks away from the pack—who is hungriest, readiest to devour something beyond the consommé, sole meunière, and Heineken that every more senior man at the table opts for. Instead of sticking to the bland palate of decorum, the young man orders a far more adventurous meal: boudin sausage with caviar sauce, escargots wrapped in pastry, and an apple-walnut salad. Instead of pallid beer, he opts for the complexity of a grand cru white Burgundy, even specifying his preferred vintage: 1981.

While his tastes seem to be highbrow, the young salaryman’s order helps him to both connect with and earn the respect of the waiter and, by extension, the chef—both of whom are presumably working-class, unlike the Heineken-drinking men at the table. The boudin, as the young man notes while poring over the menu, is cut like a quenelle—just as it is at Taillevent, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris where the chef, the waiter informs him, trained. His lunch is wildly more expensive than that of his colleagues, sure, but it is also far more respectful of the skill that the chef puts into running the restaurant, which is what has made it into the kind of place that attracts rich, powerful men who talk business over a company lunch.

There are no overt western tropes in the scenes of Tampopo that fall outside the central plot of Tampopo’s ramen shop. But Itami still tips his Stetson to the work of Ford, Leone, and others with the ravenous, extroverted, unabashed diners featured in many of the vignettes: they are outlaws. Sometimes they are out­laws only in a culinary sense, and other times literally so.

No character embodies that ideal more than Tampopo’s true criminal, the yakuza gangster. Along with his girlfriend, who is, like him, always dressed all in white, he has the film’s most taboo tastes—at the dinner table, in bed, and in between. On some level, sex, death, and hunger are always inseparable, but for this couple, the relationship is not metaphoric. Whether they’re passing an egg yolk between their lips or the gangster is drowning a pair of prawns in cognac on his lover’s bare stomach—the crustaceans’ death throes turned into erotic caresses—all pretenses are dropped. Throughout his ramen western, Itami celebrates all of his outlaws, even those whose transgressions are less explicit, for choosing to eat, and to live, in a manner that breaks with societal norms—for embracing their appetites, odd as they may be, in their delicious totality.

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