1985 // Japan // Juzo Itami
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Tampopo, the second feature directed by Juzo Itami following the award-winning satirical comedy The Funeral (1984), is arguably Itami’s most renowned work. Described as a “Noodle Western” by Itami himself, Tampopo is the most delicious film I have ever watched, perhaps besides Babette’s Feast (1987). Like The Funeral, in which Itami utilises the inevitable stage of death to reflect and comment on human behaviour and Japanese culture satirically, Tampopo makes use of food, an essential part of human survival, to offer an insight on Japanese’s solemn respect on the cuisine, in particular the ramen, and present a wide range of anecdotes (from sexual fantasy to the absurdity of food-play) revolving around food, table manner and cooking. Tampopo is about the process of art-making in a genuine smile and heartfelt soul, it has imbued with the joy of living and the appreciation of everyday life wholeheartedly, and not every comedy is like that.
Undeniably the story starts like a western, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a truck driver wearing a cowboy hat, decides to find a ramen restaurant at a night of heavy rain with his sidekick Gun (played by the young Ken Watanabe) after reading a story of ramen, in which a ramen master solemnly teach a young man on how to probably eat the ramen with the right manner and attitude, from admiring the food visually to caressing the chasau respectfully. This short story is unrelated to the main plot, yet spiritually it represents the theme of Tampopo. It serves as a juxtaposition as well as an reinforcement to the context arose in the opening scene where a yakuza-like man in the white suit (Koji Yakusho) speaking directly to the camera, thus breaking the fourth wall, and warning us not to make noise in the theatre when eating potato chips. It’s this kind of respect to arts, films and food, that should be adapted universally, and by that every absurd plot in follow is considered to be an extension of that central idea.
Goro saves a young boy from being beaten outside the ramen restaurant, and the boy happens to be the son of Tampopo, the widowed owner of the Lai Lai ramen restaurant. When Goro enters the shop, there is already a bunch of yakuza inside, led by the heavy-built Pis-ken (Rikiya Yasuoka) who is pursuing Tampopo and pursading her to give up the business. Like every heroic cowboy in the Westerns, for instance Shane (1953), Goro stands up to protect the weak (woman and children) and starts a fight with Pis-ken. Generic as it might be, the film continues to indulge on the idea of blending Western and Samurai film when Goro determines to help Tampopo in reforming her ramen business by seeking various helpers, like the recruitment of samurai in Seven Samurai (1954). Each encounter is an intriguing and creative short story, from the noodle soup master (Yoshi Kato) in disguise as a leader of the homeless, to the noodle expert Shohei (Kinzo Sakura) working as a chauffeur of a wealthy old man who nearly chokes to death by food. Gunfight and swordfight are replaced with a boxing match between Goro and Pis-ken which ends in a commence of a friendship. Pis-ken happens to be an interior designer, together with Gun’s involvement on transforming Tampopo’s outlook, Lai Lai Ramen is reborn as Tampopo ramen. And the ultimate goal of Tampopo is to serve a ramen that every costumers would finish all including the soup.
It’s astonishing to have a female ramen chef in Japan, let alone as a character in film. Sushi and ramen is a very male-dominated tradition in Japan, as far as I remember, I never see a female sushi chef, and only a handful female ramen chef. The gender difference in the field of ramen might have been improved slightly ever since, there’s even a English film called The Ramen Girl (2008) in which Tsutomu Yamazaki appears as the Grand Master of ramen in tribute to his role in Tampopo. Speaking of ferminism, even though Tampopo is assisted by a all-male group, it’s still a brilliant and genuinely moving transformation from a widow with no idea of how to cook noodles (the water is not even boiling!) into an independent skillful chef. Nobuko Miyamoto’s natural and appealing performance is apparently a great help in realization of the female transformation, while Goro is portrayed by Tsutomu Yamazaki in a deep affection that the character is more than simply a masculine identity or a heroic idol.
The narrative is episodic, the main plot of Rocky-style ramen training of Goro and Tampopo is interspersed in-between the short stories of unrelated characters. The white suit man appeared in the opening scene would emerge again with his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) in a hotel, passing an egg-yolk mouth-to-mouth. Or an old woman plays with foods in a supermarket by squeezing her bare fingers on the peach and cheese with no obvious reason, which leads to a hilarious cat-and-mouse game. After all, the main character is food. No matter it’s the tasty-looking rice omelette cooked step-by-step with instructions like in a cookery lesson, or the milk breast-feeding to a baby at the closing credit scene, they attract your attention, bring on your most inner (erotic) emotion or provoke an intense and ferocious feeling. Tampopo is a film that evades the classification into a single genre, it exceeds your expectation in every turns and elevates the Japanese culture into a blend of pure comedy and unprecedented ingenuity. If you feel hungry after watching the film, don’t worry, it’s the reflexive reaction, being a great film is as simple as that.