Japanese Wildflowers

Sometimes we need to stop and appreciate beauty, wherever it
might flourish.

Now and again you unearth something truly remarkable whilst digging through the bargain bins
of your local DVD store. A thing of such beauty that, once free from the surrounding weeds that threatened its existence, has you wondering how it came to live in such challenging conditions
in the first place. Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo has proven to be such a find for me.

Touted as the first ever ‘Ramen Western’, the film, which borrows heavily from the spaghetti western genre, follows a struggling widow, Tampopo, as she tries desperately to keep her late husband’s ramen shop in business. Her fortunes change when a noodle-loving, Clint Eastwood-type rides his big-rig into town and comes to her aid.

On the surface it’s a simple story; an ode to the perfect bowl of noodles. But like the perfect ramen broth, there’s a complexity and depth on display that’ll have you licking your lips before too long.

The literal translation for Tampopo is dandelion. We often think of a wildflower, in modern terms,
as being something untamed; a free spirit, uncultivated by the mainstream. Tampopo operates
in this realm.

This is apparent as early as the film’s opening scene in which a hedonistic gangster, dressed in
white, stares down the barrel of the camera while offering a stern warning to the cacophonous
eaters in the audience: “I don’t want interruptions!”

Itami’s eagerness to break down cinema’s fourth wall — the invisible barrier that separates actors from the audience — sets the tone for the film. He continues merrily down this path with a free-form approach, peppering his central narrative with satirical food-related vignettes; most notably a titillating episode featuring the aforementioned gangster and his young lover exploring food
as a sexual aid. It’s sensual, delectable and mouthwatering. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

This rebel spirit culminates in an unforgettable final shot of a young mother breastfeeding her
baby on a park bench, camera zooming in tighter and tighter, as the end credits roll over top.
Ahead of his time, Itami seemingly anticipates the free-the-nipple movement and the efforts to normalise the act of breastfeeding, but primarily he serves to remind us all of when our obsession with food really began.

In many ways ramen is to food culture, what genre films are to cinema: accessible, formulaic and intended for mass consumption. But just as many genre films have transcended their popularity
to become culturally significant works of art, ramen appears to be rising above its reputation as
a popular fast food to being thought of as something more artisanal. One local business helping
with this shift in perception is Tauranga’s Ramen Chidori Japanese Noodle Restaurant, on the upper end of Devonport Road.

It wasn’t that long ago that Chidori, as it’s known, was considered one of Tauranga’s best-kept secrets. Where mention of its name would more likely elicit a blank-face stare, than a real-life
heart-eye emoji. But like the wind borne seed heads of a dandelion flower, word has travelled far
and the resulting Chidori fanboys and girls have grown significantly in numbers. And rightly so.

For the uninitiated, the basic Chidori experience begins with a paitan (white bone broth) simmered for eight to nine hours. Packed with emulsified fats, minerals and proteins, it’s seasoned with
a base of shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt) or miso. After the noodles are added, the ramen is topped
with a slice of chashu pork that’s fall-apart tender, a marinated soft-boiled egg, spring onions and menma (fermented bamboo shoots with a delightful sweet and savoury flavour). The fact that
this dish can be had for little more than $10 is proof that quality cheap-eats exist in Tauranga.

Admittedly the decor is rather modest, but that’s partly what makes the discovery so satisfying
— like noticing a dandelion bursting through a crack in the pavement. Chidori is a throwback to
the pre-Insta age of authenticity. A time when you amassed an army of followers and real-world
likes on account of the quality of what you offered, not your ability to create a fabricated world behind a glass screen.

There’s a lovely moment in Tampopo that serves as a reminder to slow down and really appreciate what’s in front of you. In the scene, a young student sits alongside his grey-haired teacher, keenly querying him on the proper order in which we should consume our ramen, “Master, soup first or noodles first?” The old man pauses for a moment, answering, “First, observe the whole bowl...”

Tampopo (1985)

Writer/Director: Juzo Itami

Ramen Chidori Japanese Noodle Restaurant

130 Devonport Rd, Tauranga.

Ph 07-579 0002

Story published in issue 1 of Our Place magazine

Story by Elric James