This Thanksgiving, consider turkey ramen. Or just ramen.
Uh…warning…a few animals may have been harmed in the making of this movie.
It is a rainy night as Goro and Gun drive their truck through the city…well. Goro is driving; Gun is reading some book. He gets to the part where the writer meets elderly man who teaches him the proper way to eat ramen. This gets both truckers hungry, so they stop at a ramen place called Lai Lai. The only other customers there are five shady characters, one of which is simultaneously hitting on the cook, insulting her cooking, and mocking her pre-teen son for getting bullied. The woman, Tampopo tells him to stop, but he keeps going. Eventually, Goro has enough of hearing this and challenges the man, Pisken, to a fight out in the rain. Unfortunately, Pisken’s buddies get involved and Goro gets beaten pretty badly. Though Gun is able to take the truck to its destination, Tampopo has to keep Goro overnight.
Tampopo makes some breakfast for Gun, Goro, and her son. Goro and the boy talk about the previous night’s fight, but they start talking about Tampopo. Goro praises her bravery against Pisken as well the breakfast that she has made, but balks when the boy asks about the ramen that they had last night. Although the boy is too busy leaving to school to notice Goro’s hesitation, the Tampopo notices. She says that her husband ran this place before he died and she does not quite know how to manage it. Goro hesitates again when she asks for their honest opinion on the ramen, but Gun bluntly states that it was not good.
Before they leave, Goro teaches Tampopo the some basics of serving ramen to a customer, with Gun assisting. During this short little lesson, something changes in Tampopo. Before this, she had treated ramen as a job, something for people to consume and pay her for, something that her husband used to do, and now something that she is obligated to do. Now, it has started to become something that she wants to do and wants to do well, something that she can learn to love doing. So, as Goro and Gun are about to go, Tampopo says that Goro has inspired her to be a real ramen cook and asks him to come back to teach her more when he has free time. So he does. Initially, it seems more about bringing up her speed, strength, and accuracy. He eventually, however, starts going a little deeper into the art.
Goro takes her to a few other ramen places. There is one place nearby that is popular, but Goro says that they are too much into showmanship and not that attentive to their customers. He takes her to another place that is efficient, professional, and proper. Then he takes her to another place where a single cook takes multiple orders and remembers exactly which person ordered what. Tampopo remembers too and everyone is impressed. One day, she goes to one restaurant on her own and asks the cook for his recipe. He recognizes her as a budding professional and refuses, but a shady customer who works next door offers to let her spy on him through a hole between the shops.
Making ramen has taken over Tampopo’s thoughts and dreams, but she is still not good at it and it eats at her. So Goro takes her to the old master…a homeless man who lives in a community of homeless men…and they are all food connoisseurs and former cooks. Almost immediately, the old master agrees to help her out.
As I said, this may not have been the first Asian movie that I have seen, but it is the first that I remember seeing. I don’t remember how old I was, but I certainly remember certain scenes. The noodle slurping scene, the egg scene, the supermarket scene. While this was one of those movies that I was definitely too young for, it was still part of my childhood.
You may notice that the movie does not start with a pair of truckers driving down a rainy road. It starts with a completely different scene with different characters. That is the nature of this film. Like a daisy…or a tampopo…the movie has a main story, but tends to float around the city, with a smaller subplot and a bunch of what are basically sketches. These sketches, like the main story, are comedic and satirical. But they serve a function. Without the asides, this would be a pleasant and amusing 80-minute movie of three people and their quest to build a great ramen restaurant. It could be a rather Asian lesson on how you can learn to love doing something if you put the the psychological effort into learning how to excel at it. It could be how about how a bunch of random men condescendingly teach a woman about…the joys of cooking and professionalism…ahem…That story, however, is just the anchor of what the movie is really about. The movie is about food. This is a movie about how people in that city deal with food. This is about how the people in Japan deal with food. This is about how people deal with food. This is about people. This movie is highly specific to Japanese culture. Yet, the intense focus on food makes it universal. Who doesn’t eat? Who doesn’t want to enjoy eating?
The comedic and satirical tone of the movie makes it easy to see the movie as mocking the pretentiousness of pretty much all of the characters and how food somehow becomes mixed up with everything. And while that is fine, some of the humor may be lost by looking at the movie as simply an extended joke. Some of the scenes are so low-key or tonally non-comedic that it is rather fruitless to try to look at it as simple mockery. The treatment of food in this movie is simultaneously exaggerated, allegorical, and metaphorical. It is life, it is love, it is sex, it is business, it is social cohesion, it is communication, it is misunderstanding, it is a rigid set of rules, it is rebellion, it is tradition, it is the new, it is strength, it is weakness, it is comfort, it is risk, it is work, it is discipline, it is art, it is play, it is memory, it is knowledge, it is individualism, it is family, it is community, it is the outside world, it is the world, it is when you are born, it is when you die, it is everything, it is the only thing that you need. As sophisticated as French cuisine and as simple as milk. That is what this movie is about. That and noodle-slurping noises. One could go down the rabbit hole trying to work out the symbolism in every scene…if one wanted to. But one could see it simply as food being joy.
This movie has been called a Noodle Western or Ramen Western, not just because it is from East Asia, but because the main story centers on ramen. If…the story of Tampopo and her ramen were actually a story of…something out of a Western movie, little else would need to be changed. Most of the men that enter her life act like archetypes of the Western genre and Goro even wears a kind of cowboy hat. It also has a bit of forming of a team to help her out, similar to The Magnificent Seven or, of course, The Seven Samurai. Yet, there are genres that the movie tips its hat to, such as the gangster romance, horror, and the silent movie vaudeville act. Just like a bowl of ramen, the movie is a combination of things; some get mixed in, some stand out. But it all comes together as a complete whole. A complete whole to be actively observed, consumed, indulged, and enjoyed. And as long as you do not interfere with other people’s enjoyment, you can enjoy this any way that you want. As it is with food, it is with movies and pretty much everything else. Or it should be, at least.
WTF ASIA 32: Ko Afno (Nepal: 2015, Approx. 115 minutes)
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Free on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 33: Lady Vengeance (South Korea: 2005, Approx. 115 minutes)