My father's favorite Tampopo scene
As I’ve previously mentioned, my father passed away about 3 weeks ago in New York. I did not have the kind of close relationship with my father that I have with my mother (they divorced more than 20 years ago), but we did share a few things, including an interest in food and movies. My father barely ever cooked anything in his whole life, but he loved eating out. He used to keep folders filled with the business cards of restaurants he visited around the world, until recent illnesses made him lose interest.
One of his favorite movies was the great Juzo Itami directed classic Tampopo. It’s my all time favorite food-themed movie too. I don’t remember exactly, but he may even have been the one who told me about Tampopo originally. Tampopo is filled with short individual vignettes that are not related to the main storyline, each with a different take on the subject of food. My father’s favorite by far was this scene in the private dining room of a fancy French restaurant.
The diners consist of three levels of employees of what is likely a large corporation. The two older gentlemen, who are addressed as “senmu” and “joumu” are the equivalent of Senior Vice Presidents or CFOs or such in an American company. The three guys in their 40s or so are mid-level managment - probably bucho (divisional managers) or the like. Then there’s the young peon, probaby a “hirashain” (someone with no rank at all) who has to carry the briefcases of all the others.
They are seated in order of seniority - the top level execs farthest away from the door - and the discreet waiter presents them with the menus in that order too. But it’s obvious that the diners are totally flummoxed by the French menu. The older high-up execs especially have no clue. Then one of the mid-level guys comes to the rescue and orders Sole Meunière, a consommé, and a beer, Heineken. Sole meunière may sound like a pretty fancy French dish to order, but in fact it’s something every Japanese schoolkid would have known about. It is, or at least used to be, the first ‘western style cooking’ recipe that one learned to make in home economics class. Consommé is also something widely known - people just understand it as meaning ‘western style soup that’s clear’. And the mid-level executive guy probably thought Heineken, an imported beer, was quite fancy. After he places his order, everyone else follows suit.
That is, until the waiter comes around to the lowest one on the corporate ladder. The young man has obviously travelled to Paris, and gone to Taillevent, one of the most prestigious restaurants in France. He knows about fancy food like quenelles boudin and escargot in a vol au vent. He knows about French sauces. He even has the audacity to want a Corton Charlemagne and ask for the sommelier. In 1980s Japan, when the movie was made, this would have been a serious show-off moment. (It’s interesting also that he doesn’t seem to care, or even realize, how he’s embarassing his bosses. This may relate to the view of the younger generation in the ’80s that called them shinjinrui, literally “a new species of human” and noted their callousness and lack of respect for their elders.)
We don’t know what happens after the waiter leaves the room. The last thing we see is the older executives, red faced and in shock, looking down at their laps. To me, the scene is just funny and I just think “uh oh that young guy is in trouble now!” But to my father the scene had far greater resonance. Age-wise, he would have been at the mid-level management level in the ’80s, anxiously cow-towing to the senior executives, and he understood their confusion at the fancy menu all too well.
People of his generation and older were the ones who rebuilt Japan after the war. They were the ones who built Japan’s “Economic Miracle” of the 1970s and ’80s, who made the small island nation an economic superpower after suffering such a devastation defeat. The men of his generation were so busy working all the time that they barely had time to breathe. They never took vacations, they never got to travel except for business, or dine out except as part of ‘settai’, entertaining clients - not a situation where one could relax and enjoy the food. But the young guy in his 20s had been able to travel and see the world, to experience fine dining and learn about wine. He represented the next generation, the ones reaping the rewards of Japan’s success - the success built up by my father’s generation.
Even though my family did live overseas for many years, I don’t remember my father being around much while we were growing up. Even when we lived in places like England and the U.S., my father was still working for a Japanese corporation, and kept up Japanese working hours. He left early in the morning, came back late at night exhausted, went to work on Saturdays, and slept through most of Sunday. When he was awake, he was often irritable and angry. During the 4 1/2 years we lived in England, I can only remember two vacations where he was with us - all the other times my mother took us my sister and I away without him. He missed out on the fun coach trip we took to the Continent, where we experienced a French café and kind German waiters and a full course Italian dinner for the first time.
My father interpreted the reaction of the executives in the Tampopo scene as embarassment and shame at their ignorance and lack of sophistication. He’d had his moments of embarassment and ignorance too. I think that’s why he grew so obsessive about collecting restaurant business cards and taking notes on what he ate. It was his way of educating himself.
After all those years of relentless, grinding hours and days and years of just working, where did my father’s generation end up? Where did Japan end up? The answers are too complicated for me to analyze here.
One thing is for sure: I’m of that next generation and beyond, the ones who reaped the rewards. Next time I am lucky enough to hold a glass of Corton Charlemagne in my hands, I think I’ll raise a silent toast to my father’s memory.
(Footnote: I wrote a bit about my father’s experiences as a Japanese salesman in Europe and the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s and how it related to a Mad Men episode last year.)