What I Remember:
I have been a fan of Japanese Cinema since my first exposure to it, in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai”. It seemed the more I saw, the more I liked Japanese made movies. I saw Mizoguchi’s ghost story “Ugetsu” and loved it. Next was the amazing MacBeth version by Kurosawa entitled “Throne of Blood”. Brilliant! Soon after, I saw “Ikiru”, “Rashomon”, “Sansho the Bailiff”, “Tokyo Story”, “Rashomon”. I was in love.
I am one of the few people in the United States who saw the Japanese versions of Spaghetti Westerns before ever seeing the Italian knock-offs. My disdain for the Leone catalogue is due to this order of viewings. It is probably unfounded, since many people adore his better efforts. “Once Upon a Time in America” is one that I found very appealing, maybe because there is no Japanese antecedent. I can tell you that if you see “A Fistful of Dollars” after seeing “Yojimbo”, it’s just not going to withstand the comparison.
When I heard that there was a new Japanese film out by a lesser known director, one that turned the Spaghetti Western back on it’s head, I knew I had to see it. It was a comedy, that basically took the plot of “Shane’, and transposed it to a modern day noodle shop. A stranger rides into town, and helps a poor lady restaurateur by supplying her with the greatest recipe for noodles in the known universe. It was like the Japanese were saying…you want Spaghetti? We’ll give you a Noodle Western!
My memory is that the film was original, funny, sexy and all about food. Comedy, Gluttony and Lust. What more could anyone want from a night at the movies?
“I'll kill you if you make that noise once the movie starts! Understand? And... I also don't like watch alarms going off. “ Man in the White Suit
A trucker named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick, Gun (Ken Watanabe), stop late on a rainy night for noodles at a noodle shop. The proprietor is a nice-looking middle-aged widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is struggling to keep her dead husband’s business afloat. Her food is sub-standard, and the trucker endeavors to help her learn how to make the best possible noodles. Throughout the film, there are short vignettes that all center around food in various ways; comic, tragic and ironic.
This is the 2nd of three movies directed by Jûzô Itami which stars Yamazaki and Miyamoto. The first, called “Ososhiki” (Funeral) I haven’t seen. The 3rd is called “A Taxing Woman”, which was another very funny and engaging film. “Tampopo”, is considered by most critics to be the best of the three.
The opening alone is worth the price of admission. A very handsome couple are sitting in a theater waiting for a movie to begin. The man, dressed in a white linen suit and panama hat, stands up and looks at the camera, observing that WE have come to see a movie too. He begins to complain about people who make a lot of noise eating during the movies, and threatens a guy right behind him. Then he complains about watch alarms, which puts you right back into the ‘80’s.
The noise of eating food is a major theme throughout “Tampopo”, particularly the slurping of noodles. In one very funny vignette, a very proper Miss Manners type is instructing her young female students about the proper way to eat pasta. She performs a soundless wrapping around her fork and ingestion, all the while there is a man across the dining room slurping his Linguine with gusto. The young women are overcome by the obviously amped up sounds, and respond in kind. Soon the soundtrack is a cacophony of eating noises accompanied by close-ups of young, proper women slurping their noodles with abandon.
This scene is in direct contrast to the opening of the main plot, wherein our truckers are driving through a deluge, the sidekick reading from a book that describes the proper way to eat noodles, Zen style. It’s ridiculously over the top; “Apologize to the pork so you can say, See you soon”. It reminded me of the “Honeymooner’s” golf episode where Ralph tells Norton to address the ball, and Norton looks down and exclaims, “Hello, ball!”
If “Tampopo” hails from any single film, it is of course “Shane”. Simply the idea of a Western influencing a Japanese film about noodles….well you get the joke on Spaghetti Westerns. In “Shane” the hero rides in and saves a widow and her young son from bad guys, then leaves, presumably to go help someone else. “Tampopo” riffs on this with the idea that helping the widow make a great bowl of noodles equates to rescuing a widow from bad men trying to steal her ranch. In true Western fashion, he drives off into the sunset, or rather the Tokyo freeway afternoon. It’s parody in its finest form. Goro is such a cowboy that his truck is festooned with longhorns, and he wears a Stetson even into his bath. When he first enters the noodle shop, he sits at the counter and orders in the misdst of some pretty nefarious looking guys. It is an exact reference to all those “stranger enters a saloon” scenes. Later there is a fight between Goro and the ruffian who fancies Tampopo. It starts stylistically in silhouette, then emerges into an all out donnybrook. At the end, the two men become friends, and team up to help the widow’s transformation. The whole sequence is straight out of a John Ford classic; the Japanese version of John Wayne and Victor McLaglen. When they say their goodbyes at the end of the movie, Goro says “So long, partner.”
The vignettes are all about food and some of them are laugh out loud funny. One of the first is at a fancy French restaurant, where there is a group of businessmen dining in a small private room. Most are older well-dressed men, and the youngest one comes in oafishly bumbling his books. When it’s time to order, they all order consommé and Sole meuniere. The young man then proceeds to order like a 4 star chef, asking about the Boudin and a particular wine vintage. Later on, a skit with a group of homeless guys who are all gourmands also points out that you don’t have to be wealthy or well-heeled to appreciate the glory of food. The disconnect makes for good comedy, but it also makes a point.
Food and its relationship to sex and death are also investigated, thanks to the Man in the White Suit and his quite attractive woman. They are involved in three separate vignettes besides the opening; the first is like a scene from “9 ½ Weeks”, where food is eaten off body parts, and it gets more and more absurd as the scene goes on. The second vignette has them transferring a raw egg yolk from mouth to mouth like an erotic camp game. The third has the man doing a death scene wherein he remembers hunting Wild Boar in winter, when all the Boars eat is yams. You cook their intestines to have yam sausage. It’s the strangest death scene in film history.
Itami’s camera has some very interesting tricks up its sleeve. Many scenes take place in a downpour, which is never the kind of atmosphere that you like for comedy. The silhouetted fistfight under an elevated highway is a real treat. However the interweaving of main plot and skits is where the film really shines. The transitions are subtle, but obviously thought out. One noodle shop seamlessly turns into a fine dining establishment for our Miss Manners moment. A man runs past our heroes as they return from a night out and we follow him into his house where his wife lays dying, and a new, quite tragic food vignette begins.
The score also plays a great role in the film’s comic delivery. When one of the “Haute Hobos” cooks a rice omelet for Tampopo’s son by sneaking into a restaurant’s kitchen, the score sounds like a silent film soundtrack. It’s fitting, because the cooking must get done before the night-watchman catches them.
Tsutomu Yamazaki embodies the tough guy with a heart of gold, and plays his role straight as can be, which is perfect for what the film needs. No winking at the camera, no over-the-top tough guy stuff. He is the quintessential strong, not so silent type. As for Nobuko Miyamoto, her Tampopo is fetching, pliant but resilient, and shows some real cleverness when she gets a chef to spill his recipe for his noodles. Watanabe is there just to be a foil for Yamazaki's character. He was quite young when “Tampopo” was made, and has become an international star with turns in “Inception” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” amongst others. Kôji Yakusho plays the Man in the White Suit, and is one of the main sources for laughs. His role is somewhat of the narrator/Greek chorus. Again, like Yamazaki, he plays it seriously, which makes the absurdities of his actions that much funnier. The supporting cast are all letter perfect.
ON SECOND LOOK
If you love food, you need to see this film. It’s a very fun way to spend two hours, and I think a very original work. If you watch it when hungry, be forewarned; your appetite will be raging by the end. “Tampopo” is just as delicious and filling as I remembered it to be.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2