Since its release in 1987, Itami Juzo’s film Tampopo has been known as a cinema classic. The so-called “ramen Western” (a spin on Italy’s genre of “spaghetti Westerns”) tells the story of two truck drivers who help a struggling roadside ramen shop and its widowed owner to achieve culinary greatness. It’s beloved for its memorable performances, its offbeat humor, and its mouth-watering focus on food and the obsessions it inspires. But equally important is how lovingly it captures an iconic place – the small, family-owned ramen shop.
There are many levels to examine ramen – from its rise as a global foodstuff, to the artistry of the dish itself. Another angle is to consider the ramen shop (known as a ramen-ya or ramen-ten) itself as playing an important role in Japan’s economy and society over the last half century – and becoming an essential feature of pop culture and entertainment.
Perhaps surprisingly, ramen started out as an import. While noodles have long existed in Japanese cuisine, the most common types were historically udon and soba until the arrival of Chinese-style wheat noodles in the mid-1800s. First introduced by Chinese immigrants in the port city of Yokohama, ramen noodles (probably taken from the Chinese name “la mian”) gradually spread to Tokyo and other cities, and adapted to Japanese tastes and regional ingredients. But ramen was still considered a “foreign” food served in both Chinese restaurants and Western-style kissaten (cafés) up until World War II.
In the post-War recovery period, ramen evolved as a necessary food staple and economic lifeline. Due to national shortages of rice and other foods, cooks and families relied on wheat imported from the United States instead – putting ramen and other wheat-based foods in the spotlight. As a cheap, quick, and filling meal, ramen became popular among both aspiring chef-entrepreneurs and the hungry customers they served. In the post-War era, opening up a ramen shop became a relatively stable business venture with few start-up costs, leading many small business entrepreneurs to establish their own. While most of these spaces might have originally been informal street stalls, formal ramen shops also sprung up around the country to the point that in 2016, there were an estimated 10,000 ramen shops across Japan.
In the late 1950s, with the invention of instant ramen, anyone could whip up the noodle soup at home, but the ramen shop still retained a special place in the Japanese culinary landscape. Unlike a sushi restaurant or even a casual izakaya, where customers linger to savor their meal, a typical ramen shop moves at a faster pace: customers arrive, wait in line if busy, and then order (sometimes even with an automated ticketing machine), all the while taking in the intoxicating aromas of boiling broth and the sizzles of woks flash-frying noodles. The ramen master keeps the process moving in a bustling kitchen, juggling efficiency and craft in a delicate dance.
This lively atmosphere, and the sheer satisfaction of a delicious bowl of ramen, could be the reason why ramen shops appear regularly in pop culture. Beyond Tampopo, there have been numerous films, TV series, documentaries, and anime that dramatize either the craft of making great ramen, or the quest for ramen obsessives to find the perfect bowl. For example, Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles is a multi-volume manga that was adapted into both a live-action series and an anime series, focused on a young girl who follows her love for ramen around the country. The popular TV programs The Lonely Gourmet and Midnight Diner both feature ramen in many episodes as a source of delight at the end of a long (sometimes lonely) day, while documentaries like God of Ramen and Ramen Heads showcase the painstaking artistry of ramen chefs. There have even been internationally co-produced cross-cultural dramas like The Ramen Girl (directed by Robert Allan Ackerman) and Ramen Shop (by Singaporean director Eric Khoo), both of which unfold against the backdrop of a ramen shop with a young non-Japanese character undertaking the long, grueling study of true ramen art as a way to heal emotional troubles. In many of these stories, the ramen shop is positioned as a space of sanctuary and community in a hectic, yet isolating, urban existence.
The ramen shop is often a “nostalgic” place, because so many have been around for decades and have the retro décor to prove it (and many newer ramen shops also play on vintage aesthetics in their design). Many ramen shops are also family-owned and passed down through generations, and while there aren’t any that can technically be called shinise (Japan’s famed 100-year-plus businesses – see links to event series here), there are several that are over the half-century mark. In Tokyo for example, there’s Marucho, founded in 1947 by soba masters from Nagano Prefecture who switched over to shoyu ramen in the post-War era, and still run by the son of one of them. And in 2020, Tokyo’s very first ramen restaurant has also just come back to life. The legendary Rairaiken was founded in 1910 in Asakusa, staffed by chefs from Yokohama Chinatown, and had a long run until 1976, when the family owners couldn’t find anyone else to take over the business, so they had to close their doors. Luckily, after 44 years dormant, it has just re-opened in the Shin Yokohama Raumen Museum, with all its original décor replicated. It’s a testament to the memory of a classic ramen shop, which lives on in the minds and hearts of ramen lovers, even if the shop itself has changed form.
Movie & Bites | Explore “Tampopo” with Music Director Kunihiko Murai
JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles will relaunch its popular film program series with a screening of the delectable 1985 “ramen western” Tampopo, directed by Juzo Itami. The program will begin with a talk by renowned music composer Kunihiko Murai, who served as the Music Director of the film.
Tampopo (1985), directed by Juzo Itami
11:00 AM - 2:00 PM (PDT)
JAPAN HOUSE Salon, Level 5