The timeless wisdom of TAMPOPO

Several recurrent themes are present in Japanese films. One of them is references to food, cuisine, or washoku (i.e., traditional Japanese cooking).

A great example within this genre is the 1985 comedy Tampopo, directed by Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami.

This movie (clocking in at 115 minutes), with performances by actors who are now household names in Japan, consists of a series of vignettes that explores Japanese food culture, but mainly ramen cooking.

Although the film weaves various storylines together, delving into themes of love, power, and sexuality, its primary focus is on the central narrative of Lai Lai, who owns a struggling ramen restaurant, assisted by Goro, a good looking, relatively young itinerant trucker, to find and perfect a recipe to create the most savory ramen noodle dish.

This sets off a hero’s journey type quest.

Although Goro knows a thing or two about cooking, it’s not necessarily ramen. For example, he instructs Lai Lai on such things as sizing up the customer, or how ramen chefs analyze the customer experience, to see how they react, this kind of knowledge is not sufficient.

It’s also not completely clear why Lai Lai wants to perfect making ramen. It raises questions about whether it’s driven by Goro’s critical remarks about the quality of her ramen, or a deeper affection for him, even though their relationship lacks overt physical connection, which contrasts with other vignettes in the film.

Despite its comedic nature and the presence of various subplots, Tampopo imparts valuable knowledge about Japanese food culture and mastery of Japanese cooking. These lessons can be ranked in order of increasing significance:

In the realm of food preparation, it’s essential to uphold etiquette, but equally vital is the decorum surrounding the act of dining. This decorum often involves a deep reverence for rituals.

In pursuing a goal, like perfecting the cooking of ramen, it’s important to not only pay attention to detail (such as the ingredients that one purchases, uses, their type and quality etc.), but it’s also crucial to be highly organized.

In skill acquisition, its necessary to not only suggest and provide solutions to challenges (and not simply give up), but to also anticipate needs (e.g., proactive assistance). This is demonstrated when Goro goes out of his way to offer creative solutions to Lai Lai’s challenges.

It’s crucial to minimize mistakes as they erode trust in your audience, customers, co-workers, etc.. The movie highlights how over time when chefs and restaurants make mistakes with their cooking they lose clientele. Thus it’s essential to be thorough and committed to excellence.

In order to perfect one’s craft it’s essential to learn, be given, or discover detailed information and explanations about techniques and ingredients.

Ultimately, Tampopo encourages its viewers to prioritize skills and knowledge over faith in individuals of high status or authority. This message is embodied in Lai Lai’s (and to a lesser extent Goro’s) journey as she learns from a diverse group of individuals. Similar to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the movie also reminds viewers that the quest is not simply to improve one’s ability to make something (in this case ramen), but to perfect it.

Although learning from a movie about ramen making has its limitations, and regardless of its subject domain, it is one extra way we can benefit from improving our craft.

Photo Credit
From the movie Tampopo