Director: Jûzô Itami
Screenplay: Jûzô Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Rikiya Yasuoka
Running Time: 114 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I didn’t quite know what to expect going into Tampopo. I’d heard mention of it, always in a positive sense, so I was keen to see it. I was aware that it was a film about food too, but other than that I hadn’t a clue what I was in for when I put this fantastic new Criterion Blu-Ray into my player. I’m glad I didn’t know much either as this glorious offbeat film blew me away.
The core of the film sees truckers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) head into a ramen shop late one rainy night. They are unimpressed by the ramen, but Goro is fascinated by the attractive and determined owner Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). So when she asks Goro to help improve her cooking and bring new life to the shop she inherited from her dead husband, he accepts. He can’t do it alone though, as he’s no expert, so enlists the help of Gun and several other quirky characters he knows and meets in the city.
Alongside this story, the film oftens heads off on various tangents as the camera follows characters walking past our main protagonists. These lead to short scenes/skits surrounding people’s love of food, how it plays a part in their lives and unusual aspects of food etiquette. These are generally led by fresh new characters, but the mysterious Man in the White Suit (Kôji Yakusho), a gangster type with a sexual fetish for food, reappears several times.
In fact, this character opens the film. He and his food-sex loving mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) enter a cinema, followed by an entourage who lay out a gourmet feast. The man then talks directly to us, the audience, about eating during a film and his annoyance at those making too much noise, before waxing lyrical about the ‘short film’ you see in your dying moments.
This little opener set the film’s tone perfectly. Tampopo is a quirkily funny watch that’s playfully written and directed. Hopping around from scene to scene, from the main story to superfluous, yet more than welcome side stories, the style is best described in one of the disc’s special features. There it is described as a bowl of ramen, where you’ve got the basic stock (here the central narrative) grounding your interest in the meal/film and filling you up, then you’ve got the extra ingredients (here the vignettes) adding flavour. I fully agree with this description. The film would be fun (and some might argue tighter) if it just stuck to the one plot, but it becomes something much more interesting, enjoyable and unique through the addition of the ‘spices’.
Another aspect of the film which impresses is its depiction of food. People talk about ‘food porn’ these days with regards to TV cooking programmes and Instagram/Pinterest food images and this could definitely fit into that category. I dare anyone to watch this without getting hungry. There’s more to its presentation than nicely lit shots of elaborately decorated food though. The dishes on offer aren’t always fancy. Ramen in itself is a basic food, a quick meal for the masses in Japan. What the film does well is examine the preparation in great detail and explores the obsessive desire to create the perfect recipe, held by professionals and amateurs alike. Tampopo (the character) goes to many competing ramen shops and watches or sometimes spies on how they make their broths, noodles and accompanying ingredients, taking ideas from them and adding some of her own to create her signature bowl. It’s all done remarkably well and is mouth-watering to watch, without losing the sense of fun inherent in the film.
It explores so many aspects of food’s connection to our lives too. From sexual desire to the ‘correct’ way to eat spaghetti, many bases are covered and the film even ends with a baby drinking milk from its mother’s breast, shown under the credits. One of my favourite little scenes has a man rush home to his dying wife. He desperately tries to get her to speak before she goes, to spark some last ounce of life from her. Just when it looks like she’s gone, he asks her to cook and she miraculously sits up, heads to the hob and whips up a quick meal for her husband and children. When they start to eat, she smiles and drops down dead. The family break down in tears, but the father asks his kids to keep eating whilst the food is still hot so they can savour their mother’s final meal. It’s an unusual yet touching scene which demonstrates the beauty of the film.
Before I tie up my review, I must also mention the fact that the film is presented like a kind of western. Being a huge fan of the genre, I loved seeing the little nods to it. The central idea of a drifter coming into town and sorting out the problems of a family in need is pure Shane and other similar oaters. The fact that Goro constantly wears a cowboy hat and his truck has horns on makes it even clearer and some enjoyably over the top music cues heighten some goofy face-offs between heroes and ‘villains’ (I put this in inverted commas as there aren’t really any true villains here).
All in all it’s a wonderfully joyous and unique celebration of food and its important place in life. A comic Japanese neo-western, it’s a true oddity that effortlessly pulls off its unusual concept and deserves to be seen by all.
Tampopo is out on 1st May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is fantastic.
You get plenty of special features too. Here’s the full list:
– The Making of “Tampopo”, a ninety-minute documentary from 1986, narrated by director Juzo Itami
– New interview with actor Nobuko Miyamoto
– New interview with food stylist Seiko Ogawa
– New interviews with ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki and chefs Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Ivan Orkin
– Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s 1962 debut short film
– New video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos on the film’s themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: An essay by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore
The feature length documentary has plenty of great on-set footage and some nice insights into the filmmaking process, although it’s a bit too long as it spends too much of its running time showing scenes from the film in their entirety. This might work if you haven’t seen the film in a while, but I watched it straight after the main feature, so I ended up skimming through a lot of it after a while.
The video essay is excellent. If you’ve seen any of Zhou’s videos online, you’ll know he’s great at putting together thought provoking dissections of films and this is no different. It’s short, but does a lot in its 10 minutes. Running twice as long as this are the ramen experts. This is quite interesting, but wasn’t playing to my interests as much as some of the other features. It’s a nice addition though. I haven’t had chance to watch the rest of the features, but it’s great to see such a wide selection for a film created before special features were the norm.