Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.
Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.
When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.
The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.
Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.
I remembered this film, or possibly its successor The Salt of Life (2011), when I was given a DVD of it by a friend (who often finds interesting DVDs in London charity shops). This is a U Certificate film running just 75 minutes so its something anyone can watch. We sat down with it on a Saturday night when TV is virtually unwatchable (if you aren’t following the serial on BBC4). Watching it with the lockdown in Italy was an emotional experience.
Writer–director Gianni Di Gregorio had been an actor and writer with experience in theatre and film before he made this film as his directorial début. At roughly the same time he also worked on the rather different Gomorra for director Matteo Garrone (who, in turn produced this film). Di Gregorio also plays the central character in Mid-August Lunch and the main ‘action’ is set in his own flat. Playing what seems like a barely changed version of himself, Gianni is struggling to maintain his flat which houses him and his 93 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He owes back-rent and payments for various facilities but as the ancient festival of Ferragosto approaches, his landlord’s agent offers him a deal. If he will look after the agent’s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) over the the two nights of the festival, the agent will waive the amenities payments and the back-rent. Gianni feels he has to agree, but when the mother arrives she brings a second ‘guest’, Maria, the agent’s aunt. And then, to cap it all, Gianni’s doctor comes up with a similar proposal, depositing his mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) with strict instructions about medication and diet. Gianni finds himself catering for four elderly ladies and trying to keep them amused.
There isn’t really any plot to speak of. The three ‘guests’ plus Gianni’s mother, are all presented as ‘ordinary people’ with the kinds of likes and dislikes we all have. They want to watch TV or they want quiet. They don’t want to abide by the ‘rules’ that Gianni has been given, especially about what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. But they are also gregarious and flirtatious. Fortunately, Gianni has two great qualities. He is able to remain calm under pressure and he appears to be both an imaginative and efficient cook. Both of these qualities are perhaps only maintained by copious imbibing of white wine. In my limited experience of Italian film, TV and literature, a small glass of white wine is an essential part of daily life, capable of keeping most horrors at bay.
One of the great pleasures of this film, apart from the interactions of the characters is its presentation of Italian food culture. It appears to me that Italians generally eat very well. They take care to eat interesting things and they are prepared to pay for good quality provisions in local shops. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Italy so perhaps it is now over-run by fast food joints and German supermarkets? I hope not. During this time of coronavirus it breaks my heart to think that this eating culture has been disrupted.
I’m not sure why the Criterion print of Tampopo turned up in the Leeds festival programme but I’m glad it did because I missed it back in the 1980s. I think I probably got more from it now than I would have done then. The film opens with an extended gag about audience etiquette in the cinema featuring a dashing gangster (Koji Yakusho) in his white suit accompanied by his moll. The gangster sits on the front row and threatens the rest of the audience not to talk or eat crackly snacks during the film.
The opening gag is a marker for the unconventional narrative that unfolds in which the central story is ‘interrupted’ (but all in quite smooth transitions) by several unconnected vignettes – two more of which feature the gangster. The main narrative is associated with the Japanese passion for ramen – noodles. Two truckers operating a milk tanker return to their home city in a rainstorm and decide to drop into a run-down noodle bar. The noodles aren’t great but the driver Gorô (Yamazaki Tsutomu) falls for the widow running the joint and determines to help her make it the best ramen bar in the city. Ken Watanabe in an early role plays the trucker’s co-driver Gun. The ‘task’ that the duo undertake will involve various escapades until the widow Tampopo (meaning ‘Dandelion’) played by Miyamoto Nobuko becomes the proud proprietor of the best establishment in town. It will, for instance, mean collecting together a band of helpers – almost like recruiting the samurai in Seven Samurai. In the meantime we revisit the gangster and enjoy other food and class conflict-related vignettes. In the process we learn a great deal about the Japanese obsession with how food is prepared and served. And we laugh at the differences in food culture entertainingly presented in a scene where a Japanese tutor attempts to teach her students how to eat spaghetti without noisy slurping – which at that time was very acceptable when eating noodles in Japan (I’m not sure if it still is in Japan?).
The film is quite rightly celebrated for its comedy, though I’m not sure it is as much of a masterpiece as its reputation suggests. Still, I don’t begrudge that reputation and the film is certainly loved by its supporters. Tampopo is an ’18’ in the UK, partly because of some entertaining eroticism as the gangster and his moll ‘exchange’ foodstuffs, licking them off each other while naked. More importantly, for animal lovers, a small turtle is killed and prepared to be eaten.
Tampopo is directed by Itami Jûzô and photographed by Tamura Masaki who executes a much discussed final shot with a beautifully-arranged zoom to show the most natural form of human food consumption imaginable. It’s a very enjoyable film and reminds me that I haven’t seen enough Japanese cinema from the 1980s (and 1970s). Many commentators have made the link to Italian Westerns, partly because of the cowboy hat Gorô wears plus the music and other elements. The film is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.