Early in Juzo Itami's 1985 film Tampopo, a young man sidles up to the counter of a ramen restaurant, accompanied by an elderly sensei who, the narrator explains, has been studying the traditional Japanese soup dish for 40 years. Wide-eyed and ravenous when the steaming bowl of noodles, broth, sliced pork and decorative nori is presented to him – and hey, who could blame him? – the young man hungrily raises the bowl to his lips. Meanwhile, the old master sits there, all sagacious-like, as if lost in a trance.
The apprentice beseeches his teacher, wondering if he should slurp the broth or the noodles first. "First," the old man responds, "contemplate the ramen." And as ludicrous or high-flown as it may sound, that's precisely what Tampopo is: a contemplation of ramen.
The theatrical re-release of Itami's film rather conspicuously coincides with the ascendancy of ramen and ramen bars in North America. In 2004, celebrity chef David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in NYC, recruiting Japanese expats on Craigslist to help him translate recipes. Where the preparation of ramen was once a fringe pursuit in Japan (and even more so in the U.S.), it has cemented itself as a going cross-cultural culinary concern, comparable, perhaps, to the importing of sushi tailored to Western palates of the mid-1980s.
"[N]ow ramen is everywhere," Chang wrote in 2015. "Everyone is sharing the same experiences, but ramen is not supposed to be about that; it's food for people that don't want the same experience, that don't want to be part of the mainstream." Despite essentially being the architect of the ramen renaissance, even devoting issues of his foodie magazine Lucky Peach to it and placing the dish at the centre of his PBS doc series The Mind of a Chef, Chang has often bemoaned its growing popularity, which is just one of many tiresome things about David Chang.
Watching Tampopo in 2016 – when an Uber driver can deliver a deconstructed ramen to your apartment so you can reassemble it in a soup pot – produces similar conflicts and vexations. The film's re-release feels simultaneously like an attempt to capitalize on the "ramen boom" and an effort to revise something of a tired pervasiveness of the dish itself. It is at once part of the problem and its solution.
Tampopo is a film that's enlivened by such conflict and contradiction, mashing up styles and genre and moods in the telling of its story about the titular Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), an apprentice ramen chef mastering her art. The film is sometimes billed as a "ramen western," a punny play on the so-called "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone, et al., but the label doesn't quite stick. For one thing, it's not as if the spaghetti western were literally about spaghetti. For another, save for a few comic confrontations, mostly courtesy of a character called Gorō, Tsutomu Yamazaki's hard-nosed truck driver and ramen aficionado, who helps tutor Tampopo, Itami's movie wouldn't qualify as a western by even the more generous, revisionist metrics.
Instead, it unfolds as a series of madcap, effortlessly charming comic vignettes, centred around food and food culture in mid-'80s Japan. (In one particularly hilarious bit, a group of women are lectured on how slurping noodles, typically taken as a sign of appreciation in China and Japan, is considered bad etiquette in the West.) The film's earnest high regard for ramen as a culinary and cultural touchstone in Japan is undercut by such silliness; it's at once reverent and irreverent. Like newfangled Western revisions of ramen itself – sprinkled with corn niblets and topped with melty hillocks of shredded Swiss cheese – Tampopo is an exercise in hybridity.
Against a contemporary culinary culture that seems to simultaneously privilege voguish trends and the swift backlash to those same trends, Tampopo is a welcome reminder that even the most sacrosanct of cultural traditions shouldn't be taken so insufferably seriously. Chef David Chang should take notes.