Writer: Jûzô Itami
Cast: Tsutomo Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Kinzô Sakura, Rikiya Yasuoka, Yoshi Katô
Running time: 114 minutes
What’s the story: Timid Tokyo ramen shop owner Tampopo (Miyamoto) begins a journey of culinary and self discovery when the gruff Goro (Yamazaki) teaches her how to make the perfect bowl of noodles.
What’s the verdict: Oh, what torture reviewing one of cinema’s greatest food movies. How tasty look those clichés. The urge to call it “flavourful”, “a feast for the eyes” or “a banquet for the cinematic palate, presented with Michelin-star worthy élan”.
We quite like that last one…
Ah, shame be flambéed. Tampopo is a film to be sipped, slurped, and savoured; a soup to nuts movie-meal guaranteed to leaving you satisfied.
Writer/director Jûzô Itami’s recipe book is Japanese life in all shapes and classes, thrown into a pot and stirred with generous pinches of almost every movie genre. The base ingredient is the Western, chiefly Shane.
Tampopo (the adorable Miyamoto, then Mrs. Itami), is a widow struggling to keep open her failing ramen shop, while her young lad (Itami’s son Sakura) endures bullying from local kids.
In the cowboy attired Goro (Yamazaki), Tampopo finds a man tough enough to guide her through the rough n’ ready world of ramen; rival shop owners not taking kindly to a local upstart. A trucker by trade, Goro’s partner on the road is Gun (modern Japanese legend Watanabe).
Japanese for “dandelion”, Tampopo appropriately has many seeds that catch the wind and carry the story in different directions. Some seeds reappear, others float by just once.
One recurring “seed story” is that of cocky gangster-gourmand White Suit (The World of Kanako’s Yakusho). When not assaulting cinema audiences who cannot be quiet (good man) he enjoys erotic culinary adventures with his mistress (Kuroda). Including sploshing, before the term was coined.
Elsewhere, Itami segues from his self-described “noodle western” into comic-tragedy (a family mournfully chew down the final meal of a mother who has worked herself to death), the oddball (an old woman infuriates a shop owner by manhandling fresh produce) and the satirical (a young associate embarrasses his boss by over-ordering at a business lunch).
These vignettes recall the silly surrealism of Roy Andersson’s best work. But, Itami always returns to the stem story of his plucky heroine and the unlikely group of men helping her quest, including local ruffian Pisken (Rasuoka) and the head of a gang of homeless foodies (Katô).
The director’s usual themes of community spirit and earthy good-nature garnish the film. Along with the worthwhile lesson that greatness is the result of dedication, hard work, and a few tears.
Like Ice Cold in Alex’s medics dreaming of those chilled lagers, in Tampopo heaven is a perfect bowl of ramen, slurped to the last drop. Criticism will be polite but firm, “Her noodles are beginning to have substance, but they still lack depth.” For this is a film that opens with Gun reading a book on the perfect way to consume ramen, the act shown in mouthwatering detail.
In 1997, the 64-year-old Itami died tragically in an apparent suicide. In 2008, a yakuza claimed the director was forced to jump from the roof of his office building by thugs because of Itami’s 1992 anti-yakuza movie Minbo.
Despite this bitter aftertaste, Tampopo is a treat from beginning to end, the closing credits cheekily playing over the depiction of everyone’s first meal…
DISC AND EXTRAS: If Tampopo is the main course, the Blu-ray transfer of the 4K restoration certainly looks good enough to eat. Criterion have also not skimped on the amuse-bouche, the first and second courses, or dessert.
The Making of Tampopo is a 90-minute account of the film’s production and post-production, narrated by Itami himself. Lively, warm and funny, like the film itself this is an excellent recount of one person’s journey to produce something great, and the people who helped him do so.
Bursting with information and anecdotes, we see Itami direct his wife Miyamoto with a reference to Angie Dickinson’s acting style, and a wonderful in-depth account of how he scored the stirring climax. Plus, the practical nature of mid-budget film production back in the 1980s. Crew members pull camera-mounted dollies, presumably because Steadicams were too pricey, or are lashed to moving vehicles to get the perfect shot.
A now-chilling moment occurs early on, when Itami recounts how the actor playing the ramen master committed suicide the day after filming. He did this by jumping from a building, as Itami was reportedly forced to do 11 years later.
A 15-minute interview with food stylist Seiko Ogawa reveals the ramen master’s ritual for eating the meal was all Itami’s romantic invention. She recounts how unusual it then was for a food stylist to work on the film, and provides the historical context for the ramen recipe shown.
Further appreciations of the broth-based noodle dish can be found in The Perfect Bowl, a surprisingly engrossing 22-minute featurette, including insights from ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki and Western chefs.
Nobuko Miyamoto is the epitome of elegance in an interview shot in New York before a special restoration screening of Tampopo. She speaks affectionately of the movie and working with Itami, and how flattered she is the film has appreciative audiences over 30 years later.
Every Frame a Painting co-creators Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos’ The Amateur and the Craftsperson is an excellent video essay illustrating how the film brings to life its themes of self-improvement and dedication to a task.
Criterion have even included Itami’s directorial debut, the 1962 32-minute short film Rubber Band Pistol. Rough, lively and boasting memorable characters, it’s an interesting look at how the director approached his trademark themes before mastering his craft.
A restoration trailer and booklet complete quite the package. Stick a fork in us, we’re done!
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