Japanese Cult Classic Film Tampopo – Food in Japanese Cinema Part 1

Written by Jason Adamson on . Posted in food

Japanese Cult Classic Film Tampopo – Food in Japanese Cinema Part 1

The film ‘Tampopo’ is a Japanese food cult classic. This is not a film about stereotypical foods like sushi or sashimi that one would associate with Japan but about Ramen. Ramen is a noodle soup that could best be described as the Monkey Magic of Japanese cuisine, originating in China this widely taken for granted food has become more Japanese than wooden sandals and ninjas.

Watch the Tampopo Trailer

The film, which was written and directed by Juzo Itami, is an intertwining cinematic tangle of food related stories, which revolve around the main plot of a truck driver named Goro helping a young widow (Tampopo) improve her ramen restaurant.

The film has many underlying themes but one of the most interesting that easily crosses cultures is the theme of fetishism and sex.When someone gazes at an object we say that he devours it with his eyes, and there are many similar phrases  (Otto Fenichel in Evans and Hall p.327)

Sigmund Freud explains that fetishism is based on the castration of the woman phallus and that…. one would expect that the organs or objects chosen as substitutes for the absent female phallus would be such as appear as symbols of the penis in other connections as well.  (Freud in Evans and Hall p.325) Itami takes it one step further and combines the phallus with the egg … literally.


The exchange of a delicate egg yolk, between two peoples mouths, back and forth, combined with the sensual moaning before the climatic breaking of the egg yolk (which then runs from the woman’s mouth and down her chin) really could only mean one thing – gastronomic copulation.

Nowadays TV chefs like Anthony Bourdain talk about food porn but compared to this scene in Tampopo, Bourdain’s food porn is more like watching Mary Poppins eat an apple.

But this scene has just as much to do with the actual yolk of the egg itself as it does with the sexual interaction between the two characters. The egg itself on a semiotic level signifies fertility, reproduction and birth and even more when penetrated deeper from a Freudian and psychoanalytical viewpoint.


There are similar scenes throughout the film such as the old crazy woman who runs around the supermarket squeezing thepeaches, cheese and buns in a twisted rampage of grocery fetishism.


The Oyster scene in which Kōji Yakusho buys an oyster from an oyster girl again just exudes sexual connotations. With the oyster itself representing a woman’s vagina the male character cuts his lip as he attempts to suck it from its shell. The actual oyster in this scene is personified or gendered as being the woman and the male gaze reinforces the sexual imbalance that is prevalent within society.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.

In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to – be – looked – at – ness. ……Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative.” (Mulvey in Evans & Hall 1973 p 383)

It is this sex and eroticism in Tampopo that demonstrates how food can become a common language across cultures. Certain foods are or have become gender specific; in that an oyster is not masculine as much as a sausage is not feminine. But not all foods are as easily decoded as sausages, eggs and oysters. Some have very culturally specific meanings.


One part of this movie that is often misinterpreted by audiences who are not Japanese is the scene of the Ramen Master. In Japan this is an extremely humorous scene.

In Japanese society there is a certain way to do things. There are rules and reasons and a ritual for everything including cooking and eating. Ramen is one of the only foods in Japan that really has no rulebook. It is in this scene that Itami satirically makes fun of Japanese culture itself.

It is the act of turning something that is so simple into something complex that makes this scene comedic to a Japanese audience. It is an underlying part of Japanese culture to find perfection or an art in everything; something that is valued, but at the same time is able to be poked fun at by Japanese people themselves.

Tampopo is a film that should be watched by a western audience at least twice. The first time just for the pure pleasure of the film with no understanding of the underlying social connotations of the food and the second time when the western audience has become more familiar with Japanese culture and can understand the cultural sub contexts which make the film a true masterpiece.

Now lets look more at the sub contextual meanings of food in another very different Japanese film Nankyoku Ryorinin.


1.     Fenichel. O. (1954) The Scoptophilic Instinct and Indetification in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
2.    Freud S.(1927) Fetishism in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
3.    Mulvey L. (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
4.    Tampopo (1985) Feature Film, Japan, Itami Productions, Director Juzo Itami.

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Jason Adamson

Jason Adamson

Jason lives in Osaka Japan and has an infatuation with raw fish, ninjas and sake. Originally from Australia he has a Masters in Communications and a Le Cordon Bleu Masters of Gastronomic Tourism. He also owns a very old Nintendo.
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Comments (2)

  • Nguyễn Sơn Hà


    just a little correction: the beau in white vest wasn’t the character played by Watanabe, but the younger truck driver was.


    • Jason Adamson


      Thanks for that pick-up Nguyễn … that one slipped through the cracks…
      All fixed now

      Thanks again !!


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