Have you ever considered the pure pleasure of eating? The ritual of it, and the act of it, and the moment the flavors burst on your tongue and the aroma overwhelms you. Food is what ties it all together, of course—what keeps us going, but figuratively and very literally. Yet there’s something about eating that exists almost outside the food itself, or perhaps surrounding the food. It’s a spiritualism, baked into food’s very meaning, binding us to our own souls, and to others as well. As foodie culture has overtaken the mainstream, feeding us an endless array of documentaries about chefs and their creations, some sense for food’s spiritual quality has been lost, subsumed by an attention to the art of creation rather than the religiousness of consumption. Cinema stands as a bulwark against that separation, often luxuriating in the space food occupies in our collective feeling, taking immense pleasure, not from eating, but from watching people eat. Few films do this better than Juzo Itami’s Tampopo.
Tampopo is all about food’s centrality in the spirit. The Japanese comedy-western-gangster film about a group of unlikely men trying to help a woman, Tampopo, turn her third-rate ramen restaurant into the best in town makes food its driving force. Alongside the main story are a number of vignettes and another secondary story, all about food. There is cooking, of course. There can’t be dining without cooking. But it is the experience of eating that’s foregrounded. An early scene involves a master ramen eater teaching the ways of ramen—”apologize to the pork,” the master instructs—and sets the tone for the film. It’s irreverence about reverence itself. The film is extremely funny, but completely serious in its appreciation of food and the power of eating, and of sharing a dining experience with others.
Few things are more cinematic than a meal. Where cinema usually prizes bold kineticism or staid formalism, watching people eat offers a distinct combination of the two. Consider the steps: looking at the food, taking it in, smelling it, picking it up, considering it for a moment before taking a first bite, letting the taste wash over and then going in for more. Small moments all, but collectively overpowering, and perfect for a cinematic eye. Then there’s the ritual surrounding the eating itself. Taking a seat at at a table among others, exchanging ideas and emotions over food, often hiding true feelings beneath the act of eating. Connections between people forced to the fore by a mutual need, and often boxed in by custom or tradition. Every meal in a costume drama, for example, brims with energy as conversation and etiquette come to a head, all over the most delectable meals. Recall the parade of dinners in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, with their stately air and lavish cooking, where as much is said in glances as in words, and the precise moment a character decides to eat can speak volumes about their buried intentions.
Tampopo satirizes such high class affairs of dining, most memorably in two connected vignettes at a hotel restaurant. One, in a private room where a group of businessmen meet, focuses on the act of ordering. The men around the table, bound by a deep will to remain on an even keel, hem and haw until all hilariously ordering the same thing. Except for one. One man whose taste for food overcomes all momentary etiquette, and who takes his time ordering exactly the right meal for his mood. He hasn’t even eaten yet, and already he’s seemingly entered a higher plane. In the next vignette, a group of Japanese women are taking a lesson on eating spaghetti and how not to slurp, for slurping is forbidden in western culture. Their inability to eat the pasta without slurping is hilarious, but also revealing, signaling a certain voraciousness, a desire to consume and enjoy their food uninhibited by the stultifying etiquette of aristocratic Europe.
Spirituality, surely, is nothing without sensuality, and in this area cinema excels better than most art forms. Finding sensuality in food is frequently the domain of film. Think of all those sex scenes from the 80s and 90s involving various fruit and ice and drinks. Tampopo takes food during sex to marvelous extremes. In one sex scene, a couple feed each other various food items, rubbing them all over each other, culminating in the man placing some kind of live prawn in a glass on the woman to tickle her stomach. In another scene, the couple pass a separated egg yolk from mouth to mouth, careful not to break it, getting more and more aroused until finally the woman reaches climax, breaking the yolk and letting it spill out her mouth. Done in one take and all in close-up, the scene lives in its sexual suspense, letting us watch the yolk pass back and forth, grasping at our armrests for that final relief. It’s disgusting in some ways, but also one of the most genuinely arousing “sex” scenes captured on film.
Sensuality and consummation are not exclusive, though. Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love exists in a similar state of suspense and arousal, but never with any sex. It’s the meal itself. The couple who can never be together, but in the act of eating manage to share so much of themselves with each other. It’s also present in Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat, in which the experience of consuming the most delectable chocolate marks the beginning of a love affair, as well as affecting the lives of the townspeople. If cinema is one of our best tools for watching people, it’s an even better tool for watching the subtle interactions between people. Dialogue, sex, fighting, dance. Film captures all these acts extremely well. Eating is just another. And just as that interaction can be sensual, it can be anything else really. Menacing, even, as in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, when Shosanna is forced to sit at a restaurant opposite Hans Landa, who forces her manners—”attendez la crème”—and chews forcefully on his strudel.
But what Tampopo captures best of all is that pure pleasure that comes from eating. The sense-memory of it. The heartiness of a good meal. The love that emerges from cook for someone and having them enjoy the food. Tampopo’s triumph and elation in watching her friends gulp down those last drops of broth is shared by the audience, and you can bet everyone who steps out of the film will be hunting for the nearest ramen shop. That pleasure watching people enjoy their food is present in everything from Babette’s Feast to Big Night. It’s there in the look of joy in Joséphine’s face in Clair Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, when she tries the rice from her new rice cooker. Perhaps most memorably it’s there in Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, when the jaded film critic takes a bite of his ratatouille and is instantly transported back in time to his mother’s cooking.
That warmth, sense of connection and memory are all inherent to food. As are sensuality, and spirituality, and intimacy, and manners, and tradition and even respect. It’s all wrapped up in the the act of eating. Tampopo touches on all of them, even in death, where a dying man’s last words to his lover are about eating a specific kind of boar killed at a specific time of year and how he wishes he could have shared that with her. Or in another scene where a husband tries to extend his dying wife’s life by getting her to cook a meal for the family. She does, and when she collapses immediately after and the children are crying, the husband screams at them, urging them to eat their mother’s cooking. The last meal she ever made. There is deep cinematic pleasure in watching people eat, and Tampopo delightfully explores that fact in all its facets.