Prior to this week, the last time I saw Juzo Itami’s 1985 food comedy Tampopo was in the mid-90s. I remembered so little of the movie save for the fact that I enjoyed it. Some isolated scenes are easy to recall, though. There’s an etiquette class that slurps spaghetti, for instance. And there’s the perverse, unexpected eroticism of two lovers swapping an unbroken raw egg yolk from mouth to mouth. Mostly I remembered its offbeat genre mash–not a spaghetti western but a ramen western.
Tampopo is an utter delight. It’s so charming and strange: a movie about a ramen shop that’s sort of structured like a bowl of ramen. The tangential narrative strands tangle together like noodles, complemented by the broth, with some sex as tender protein; all of it presented with a quirky warmth like the pink and white spiral on a slice of naruto.
Director: Juzo Itami
Release Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)
There’s a familiar old west tale in Tampopo, with variations on cowboys and saloons and pretty schoolmarms. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) are a pair of truck-driving gourmands that mosey into town. They stop by a noddle shop in a sorry state run by a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). She’s quaint, mousy, often dressed in gingham, demure to a fault. Also, her ramen just plain sucks. Since they’re good cowboys, Goro and Gun help Tampopo improve her shop, sort of like working the farm or rebuilding this here schoolhouse.
Tampopo spends the the film perfecting her ramen and in the process attempts to perfect herself. It’s not just a western but, philosophically, a martial arts movie. This is a story about the discipline of mastery. Think Jiro Dreams of Sushi, except ramen: self-improvement through a process of trial and error and practice. It’s a familiar narrative, but when filtered through an unexpected intermediary, it achieves remarkable existential heft. Even in a decidedly lighthearted comedy like Tampopo, it’s moving to witness someone try and try again until they achieve some ennobling dignity, no matter how small. All that effort for a good bowl of soup.
But that’s just part of the oddball/heartfelt appeal of Tampopo. Soba isn’t the only noodle. The movie starts with a gangster in white (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) entering a movie theater, ostensibly to watch the main story of Tampopo described above. The gangster waxes philosophical about life, death, and the movies, and then roughs up a guy crinkling a bag of chips in the row behind him. Later in the film, the gangster and his moll reappear periodically, using food as foreplay. By comparison, these scenes make 9 1/2 Weeks seem like the missionary position in Mormon underwear.
Swirling around these two recurring narratives are a series of one-off skits on the role of food in people’s lives. So many rituals, roles, and social codes are built around food and propriety, and we take a break from our gal at the noodle shop to get a survey of food culture in 1980s Japan. What Tampopo seems to emphasize in most of these one-offs is the sensual pleasure of food, and how our desire for sweets and richness and even just sloppy eating can’t be restrained. Yet even when defying restraint, our taste for the sensual can be refined and in the process our appreciation for pleasure deepened. Tampopo isn’t a movie for foodies. What a wretched, bourgie word that is. Tampopo is a movie for uplifting gormandizers who want to suck marrow rather than spoon it from the bone.
Tampopo was just the second film from Itami, though it seems so assured and confident. Who else but a confident filmmaker decides to include a goofy rice omelet scene with a hobo? At numerous times the actors address some off-camera interlocutor by looking directly at the audience. This recurring quirk is sort of like Ozu, but not like Ozu at all. Tonally I was reminded a little of A Christmas Story, but then in comes a sexy or dark or sensitive moment redolent of some separate influence. Every couple minutes, unexpected surprises, and just more and more delight.