Directed by: Jûzô Itami | 114 minutes | comedy | Actors: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Kôji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Rikiya Yasuoka, Kinzô Sakura, Yoshi Katô, Hideji Ôtaki, Fukumi Kuroda, Setsuko Shinoi, Yoriko Dôguchi, Masahiko Tsugawa, Yoshihiro Katô
A Western about making (and enjoying) Japanese noodle soup (Ramen). Difficult to imagine what? Sure, but ‘Tampopo’ really is such a movie. The difference is that in this Western the cowboys don’t have horses but cars – and trucks – there are no shootouts and it’s not set in the Wild West. Other than that, it comes pretty close. Were it not that the film is much more than just this high concept description. ‘Tampopo’ is also a (socially critical) satire that, in addition to the central story about an ambitious noodle chef, consists of various different sketches and stories. Although the common thread is always food, director Juzo Itami’s menu is also very diverse.
That wide view is nice, because it makes ‘Tampopo’ just that little bit more special and richer. This is not to say that the central story is not interesting enough or cannot stand on its own. It only changes ‘Tampopo’ from a charming and entertaining movie to a unique, must-see movie, just to throw a nice marketing term at it.
Back to the main story, about Tampopo. This is the name of the main character (played by acclaimed actress Nobuko Miyamoto), with whom two truck drivers wearing cowboy hats pause briefly to eat some noodles. Here the eldest of the pair, father figure Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) gets into a fight with the noisy – and intruding on Tampopo – Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), because he dares to criticize the quality of the Ramen. After some tough talk and a lot of blows, the Florence Nightingale syndrome occurs and Goro is patched up by Tampopo. Then it’s time for a good chat: Tampopo seriously wants to know what’s wrong with her Ramen. Long story short, she is apprenticed to Goro and his buddy Gun (a very young Ken Watanabe), like an apprentice samurai to his master (sensei).
This road to becoming the ultimate Ramen chef is in itself a very successful story, because of the combination of the original fact, the parallels with other films (at some point there is a kind of Rocky training montage taking place), the engaging acting by Miyamato and Yamazaki, not to mention the tasty images of the noodle soup and its preparation. It doesn’t take long before you’re yearning for a nice cup of Ramen yourself.
But there is more. Sometimes some characters walk or sit in the background, who are then followed for about five minutes. It is a bit reminiscent of the Dutch series ‘A’dam – EVA’ (where EVA stands for ‘And many others’), or the scenes in ‘Before Sunrise’ where the discussions of other couples are briefly followed before going back. return to the main story. Often these vignettes in ‘Tampopo’ criticize the social or class structure in Japan. But also on the old-fashioned male-female division of roles. You can see how a stiff Japanese etiquette teacher in a (Western) restaurant wants a group of women to eat a plate of spaghetti without making a sound. While a Japanese name is unabashedly slurping a table further, as is very common in Japan (when you eat noodles). You can better take in all the flavors that way. Initially the women react indignantly, but it doesn’t take long before the whole table is slurping along eagerly.
Painful and telling is the story in which the ambulance rushes to the aid of a family in which the woman is (literally) dying – or at least in very bad shape – because of overwork. However, her distraught husband has a bright idea. ‘If she falls asleep, she will die’ he thinks. ‘I know: ‘go and cook dinner,” he orders her, pointing to the kitchen. And sure enough, she does. She gets up like a zombie, goes into the kitchen completely on autopilot, grabs a prize and gets to work. When she has just put the pan on the table, where her family is already waiting, she collapses. Out of respect for their mother, the kids have to keep eating, says father. A story that stays with you.
The only ‘other’ characters that appear more often are those of a white suit-clad yakuza (beautifully played by the charismatic Koji Yakusho) and his gangster sweetheart (Fukumi Kuroda). He is actually the introduction in the movie Tampopo, which we see him watching in a cinema, where he addresses the viewer (us) (and asks what he is eating). He occasionally plays the gangster, but can mainly be seen in amorous moments with his mistress. Moments where – not coincidentally, most of the time food is involved. The scenes sometimes seem to be parody of ’91/2 weeks’, were it not for the fact that the film would not be released until a year later. They eat each other’s bodies – or have sex with food, which you will – with even live shrimp playing a bizarre role. The moment when the couple passes an egg yolk to each other through their mouths is also one to remember. It’s sensual, obscene and comical at the same time. Pretty well done.
It would be a shame to say more. Tampopo is a film that must be experienced. No, it is not a film that is very exciting, has a timeless love story or is outright tragic or hilarious, but it is a sympathetic film that does a little bit of everything; and who does everything right. You will regularly get a smile on your face, be moved, nod because of the pointed commentary, or enjoy the movie references or the fine (classical) music.
It’s nice that the film can’t be pigeonholed. ‘Tampopo’ is sometimes reminiscent of silent cinema, Monty Python, magical realism, absurdism, the contemplative, observational films of Ozu, the work of Fellini, and (Western and Japanese) crime films and Westerns. On paper a strange mishmash that shouldn’t work like that, but somehow it all fits together beautifully.