'Tampopo' Serves Up Film Noir, Gangster and Western Tropes With Noodles


Viewers who like early Woody Allen will enjoy the humor in Tampopo.


Director: Juzo Itami
Cast: Nobuko Miyamoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Year: 1985
US DVD release date: 2017-04

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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