During the late 1980s and 1990s, directors such as Takeshi Kitano and Morita Yoshimitsu created films defined by minimalistic emotions, music, dialogue, and such in a “detached style.” These films engaged in discourses that criticize contemporary Japanese society and suggest that film is not capable of showing “truth” but exists only as “film” itself. As Linda Ehrlich notes, Tampopo is also a critical film that “joins a celebration of the cinema in a ‘comedy of manners’ about Japanese society.” Itami Juzo’s Tampopo participates in post-modern film discourse (due to its fragmented, “renga-like” narrative form, its violation of the fourth wall, and its absurd portrayal of Japanese rules and manners) but also offers a pastiche celebration of film with its anacreontic excess of homage, clichés, emotional music, dramatic dialogue and other aspects of traditional Hollywood cinema. Tampopo represents an absurd parallelism of the rules for making and loving food, sex, and film.
The implicit meaning of the train and cowboy motifs in Tampopo must be deconstructed to better understand the ways Tampopo break the rules of narrative continuity. Withstanding the plot setup, the story of Tampopo’s achievement follows Classic Hollywood Cinema conventions with Tampopo, Goro, and her circle of male guides as casual agents that direct the narrative from point A to point B, in which she overcomes obstacles to reach her defined goal. With the help of Goro and her other new friends, Tampopo changes from a widowed, disheveled mother of a bullied child and heiress to an unkempt ramen house into a successful, intelligent, and happy owner of “Tampopo’s Ramen” within a competitive noodle market.
A passing train appears multiple times in the background throughout the film. The passing train could embody referential meaning for one of the greatest monumental moments in film history. The Great Train Robbery from 1903 was the first narrative film directed by Edwin S. Porter. In the context of Tampopo, however, the passage of the train from its starting point to its destination parallels the structural progression of the film narrative from point A to point B and the act of eating and sex, which were common, juxtaposed themes. In the first vignette, the “ramen-eating master” says to the slice of beef, “I’ll see you later” as a funny nod to the inevitable path of the beef after consumption. In another scene, the camera tracks the entry of a piece of food into a character’s mouth before there is an immediate cut to a passing train. Finally, the passage of trains was often used as a joke reference to the act of sex in films.
Donning the iconic hat from the “Old West” and occasionally accompanied by non-diegetic music characteristic of most Westerns, Goro is introduced as the cowboy. The nature of the cowboy, by profession, is to direct the transport of large herds from one location to another, point A to B. In the same way Goro directs Tampopo, the helpless and pathetic protagonist, to become a great female noodle-maker by collecting the best traits of successful noodle houses in her vicinity, this film director creates a sort of “compilation film” that pays homage to Westerns such as High Noon, Giant, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Once Upon a Time in the West while also uses clichés from other genres such as tragedy, romance, and comedy. The irony of the cowboy lies in his anachronism. During times when Americans still lauded the idea of Manifest Destiny, the respective setting of the cowboy, cowboys represented the trespassing of new terrain. Now, all the land in America has been infringed upon and claimed and cowboys were replaced by more powerful mechanisms of transport such as trains. Just as the cowboy serves as an allegory for nostalgia for a dead time period, Tampopo is an allegory for the end of the modern film era when film was still capable of speaking for itself.
Juzo positions Tampopo in post-modernist film categories when he juxtaposes its linear narrative form with multiple vignettes that hover between being diegetic and non-diegetic inserts and the non-diegetic yakuza character that breaks the fourth wall. The yakuza directly addresses the audience in the first scene and stars in his own separate story within the main plot. His character serves to break the narrative continuity, interrupting the audiences’ passive enjoyment of the main story. The vignettes are short stories in some relation to Tampopo’s life, featuring the point of views of secondary characters. By sharply criticizing Japanese cultural and social norms, they contribute to the themes of food and teaching rules. Public and private places of dining are common grounds for rules and customs in Japanese culture, as it is in many cultures. Here, they become spectacles for the exposure of hypocrisy, triviality, and absurdity. The first short clip consists of a young man’s flashback memories of his master eating noodles the “proper” way, following many non-sensible and non-pragmatic rules. Another clip illustrates a young amateur-looking businessman out of six demonstrating his sophisticated, informed knowledge of French cuisine to the outrage and embarrassment of the older businessmen (who all order the same, boring meal). Another vignette shows a refined Japanese woman giving instructions to other ladies on how to eat noodles quietly while a Western man slurps his noodle loudly and disgustingly in the vicinity. Then all the women, including her, follow suit despite her repeated instructions on proper table manners. In a way, Goro and Tampopo’s proclaimed measure of a successful noodle house, in which the customers finish up to the last drop of soup from their bowls, is as shallow as the rules the film criticizes. In an analogy to film appreciation, this suggests that if a customer in a movie theatre sits through an entire movie, to the point when credits begin rolling, the film is considered good. The customer in a noodle house or movie theatre could merely be satisfying their “natural cravings” for noodles or a movie for that moment.
The yakuza character and his lovely girlfriend introduced in the first scene represent the “intrusion” to the narrative and editing continuity that serves not to add to the narrative but detract from it in a critical manner characteristic of post-modern films. Right at the beginning, the yakuza questions the audience, “...so you’re in the movie too”. Then, the yakuza acknowledges his own ironic role when he states that for “a man’s last movie”, he didn’t want interruptions such as alarms going off in the theatre whereas he himself is an interruption to the film. The yakuza repeats that Tampopo will be his last movie a few times before he is finally shot near the end of the film. His only role in Tampopo is to watch the main story before he is killed off. Just as he exists for the audience to observe his dramatic death, Tampopo exists to mark off the death or end of the modern period of film-making. Tampopo consists of not much more than a pastiche of clichés and homage. The same way Tampopo’s successful noodle house is a testament to how a collage of many of the best features of good restaurants can create a great one, Tampopo seeks to represent a similar amalgamation that is pseudo-new but offers no inherent truth in its main story.
Although Tampopo may not have any significant implicit or explicit “morals” or “meanings’ to the story, it still represents a celebration of cinema for its own sake. Throughout the film, the audience is bombarded with scenes of people giving into their natural hunger and sex drives in a sort of anti-intellectual atmosphere. The yakuza and his beautiful lover dine on fine cuisine from the first scene to the sex scenes. Even in his final monologue, he provides elaborate descriptions for making delicious pork sausages. The yakuza also lustily sucks from an oyster collected by a young girl on the beach, and then her fingers, and finally her lips. In a vignette, a man with an ice cream cone offers his ice cream to a young boy despite the prohibition on unnatural foods indicated on the sign tied around the boy’s neck. The boy, in reaction to the ice cream, devours it greedily and happily. In another vignette, an old woman giddily takes pleasure in poking food throughout the supermarket before she is swatted by the clerk. The closing scene features a mother unabashedly breastfeeding her child on a park bench. In the last few vignettes mentioned, the film not only encourages indulgence in pleasure but also acknowledges an element of “guilt” that is haughtily cast aside. The execution of the yakuza, who committed the cinematic crime of breaking the fourth wall, could represent the first cathartic release for the audience. The viewers can finally enjoy the primary story without any distractions. In many post-modernist films, directors often employ various techniques to break the audience’s complete attention as a reminder of their actual voyeuristic position and that they are just observing a film separate from their reality. Tampopo’s complete triumph over her pathetic beginnings and various obstacles along the way, which brings the film to a strong closure, represents the second cathartic release. Regardless of the fact that Tampopo is nothing more than an amalgamation of clichés and homage, Itami Juzo still wraps up the narrative with a Hollywood ending. Contemporary viewers know better than to be content with the typical Hollywood ending but Itami Juzo acknowledges that “guilty” pleasure associated with such traditions of cinema for its own sake.
In the same way people enjoy taking trips to escape to or explore new places by way of various vehicles of transportation such as trains, Itami Juzo encourages his audience to go along for the ride with Tampopo. Although Tampopo exhibits the semblance of the typical Hollywood linear narrative structure, Juzo inserts many vignettes with some connection to the main themes and breaks the fourth wall with the yakuza character. These elements of the film signify that Tampopo really belongs in post-modern film categories yet is still capable of celebrating film as a great artistic medium despite critical modern sensibilities.