According to actress Nobuko Miyamoto, director Jûzô Itami aimed for three things in his films: to make them surprising, fun, and able to be understood by anyone. All three goals are admirably met in Tampopo, Itami’s 1985 film starring Miyamoto (who in real life was married to Itami) as a young widow who sets out to become the world’s greatest ramen chef.
It’s clear from the very first frames that Tampopo is no ordinary film. A gangster (Koji Yakusho) and his girlfriend, elaborately dressed in shades of white, enter a small movie theatre occupied by a smattering of patrons. Several white-clad attendants proceed to lay out an elaborate feast on a small café table before the glamorous pair, then the man rises to address the camera directly. His subject is proper decorum in theatres, and he’s not a fan of noisy food or beeping watches during movies—in fact, such behavior might prove hazardous for the offender if it disturbs this ardent movie fan.
You might consider him a precursor to BBC critic Mark Kermode and his “Wittertainment Code of Conduct”, but with lots more violence on tap in the enforcement division. As this unnamed “man in white suit” (his only identity in the credits) settles down to watch the movie proper, so do we.
Tampopo consists of a conventional narrative intercut with short episodes that comment on themes within the main story line but take place in different cinematic worlds. That may sound pretentiously arty, but in fact this film is fast moving and funny and not at all difficult to follow, unless you are so wedded to the Hollywood invisible style that you can’t appreciate anything else. Viewers who like early Woody Allen will enjoy Tampopo.
The main narrative draws on the conventions of the coming of age and martial arts genres, except that in this case the main character is already well into adulthood and the art she wishes to master is not karate but cooking. When we first meet her, Tampopo (Miyamoto) is just getting by, running a mediocre noodle shop frequented by tough-looking characters and supporting her child as best she can.
One day, a stranger comes to town. Actually two strangers happen by the shop, truck drivers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his young sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe). Goro rescues Tampopo’s young son from a gang of bullies, then challenges an abusive customer and ends up taking on his entire gang, with predictable results.
The next morning, while having breakfast with Tampopo, Goro lets slip that her ramen is not very good. In the sort of improbable exchange that only happens in the movies, she asks him to be her teacher, and together they embark on a quest to make her the world’s greatest ramen chef. Rounds and rounds of training (lifting heavy pots of water, doing roadwork like a boxer) commence, accompanied by travel to sample the wares of their competitors and to accumulate the necessary knowledge however they can.
Tampopo has been called a “noodle Western”, but that label is inadequate as it draws on several Western genres, including the film noir and the gangster film as well as the Western. (The analogy is also weak because noodles are actually central to the story of Tampopo, while the “spaghetti” in “spaghetti Western” referred to the Italian nationality of director Sergio Leone, not to the content of his films).
In contrast, the short episodes that punctuate this story line are focused more directly on satirizing certain aspects of Japanese culture. In one, an intense young man asks his sensei how to eat ramen properly (“Broth or noodles first?”) and receives detailed instructions on how to properly “contemplate the ramen”. In another, a young salaryman disrupts protocol at an elegant restaurant by taking the lead in ordering, rather than deferring to his boss. In another part of the restaurant, a group of elegantly-clad young women are instructed on how to properly eat spaghetti in the Western style, twirling their forks on their spoons and never, ever making a sound. They start out well enough, but soon revert to slurping the strands like ramen. The white-clad gangster and his girlfriend also reappear, in a series of scenes underlining the connections between food and eroticism (you’ll never look at an egg yolk in the same way again).
The new Criterion Blu-ray release of Tampopo features a 4K transfer that does justice to cinematographer’s Masaki Tamura’s eye-popping use of color. Kunohiko Murai’s upbeat soundtrack, presented in remastered mono, is as eclectic as the film itself, mixing classical music, jazz, and imitations of soundtrack music from various types of genre films.
This release comes with a generous package of extras, although there is not feature-length commentary. Extras on the disc include a 1986 “making of” featurette (90 min.) narrated by Itami, a 2016 video interview with Miyamoto (11 min.), a 2016 video interview with food stylist Seiko Ogawa (16 min.), a 2017 video essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos on Tampopo’s journey to become a master of her craft (ten min.), a 2016 feature on Tampopo’s influence on food culture (22 min.), the trailer for the Janus Films release, and Itami’s first film as director, “Rubber Band Pistol,” a 1962 short (32 min.) black and white film. There’s also a CD insert that’s a poster on one side, while the other side presents an essay by Willy Blackmore, notes on the transfer, and cast and production credits.