Many films have become the quintessential viewing schedule for cinephiles planning to take their first steps into Asian filmmaking. And while naturally names such as Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa come to mind, Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” is also one of those titles frequently mentioned within those lists. Considered a “ramen western” by reviewers as well as the director himself, “Tampopo” is not only a celebration of Japanese cuisine, but also of the pleasures within our lives, the various ingredients that make our time on earth as enjoyable as the various ramen dishes served in the film.
“Tampopo” is screening at New York Asian Film Festival – Winter Showcase 2020
After he has heard his young colleague Gun (Ken Watanabe) telling him a story about how to correctly enjoy ramen, truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and him end up at a run-down ramen shop. The owner, a woman named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), tries to make ends meet, providing for her son and running a business, but the meals she serves are not very good as Goro and Gun soon find out. When asked about their honest opinions, both men tell her the truth, but also offer their help in turning her business into a success.
Apart from observing their competitors, Goro and Tampopo gather a few supporters for their enterprise, among them a mysterious noodle-making master (Yoshi Kato), a young cook named Shohei (Kinzo Sakura) as well as Tampopo’s former costumer Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka) who has also been in a fight with Goro as he first arrived in town. However, all of them must put their differences aside and help Tampopo in order to help her business and finally make the perfect bowl of ramen.
Although cooking and eating are the main themes within “Tampopo” Itami’s exploration of people’s enjoyments goes far beyond the culinary. Those unable to enjoy are portrayed as unhappy or suffering within the film, at times with quite serious undertones, such as Tampopo’s son who has become the victim of various bullies at school, or a man we meet in one of the few side-stories of the film plagued by a rather nasty toothache. While the latter results in quite funny episodes with slapstick humor caused by rather absurd situations, the serious undertones of the film show how we may forget how to enjoy the simple joys in our lives due to our own fault or through circumstances we cannot control.
In this regard the act of cooking, of preparing the ingredients, making the broth and the noodles as well as cutting the meat are the stages of regaining this control, and thus being able to enjoy life again. In the case of Tampopo, it is part of her development throughout the story as we observe her from being unsure about herself into actually taking matters into her own hands and finding her “ladder”, as she puts it, her purpose and her hidden talents. Food and cooking becomes a transformative act, one which changes the person and the world surrounding him or her. Additionally, it is a sensual experience close to other physical pleasures as the film and the images frequently highlight.
However, “Tampopo” is not only about the pleasures of the culinary, but also of cinema. Beginning with a man in a white suit (Koji Yakusho) breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience not to disrupt his viewing pleasure of a film, Itami and his DOP Masaki Tamura engage in various references to the world of cinema. Apart from the gangster film and the melodrama the film contains a plethora of references to, for example, spaghetti western and the French Nouvelle Vague, most importantly the comedies of Jacques Tati and the films by Francois Truffaut. While one might be tempted to call these scenes self-indulgent, they serve within the movie’s main theme of pleasure and enjoyment as they celebrate the art of film along with its wide spectrum of stories.
“Tampopo” is a very entertaining film about the necessity of enjoyment in our lives, a celebration of the art of cooking as well as cinema itself. Supported by a wonderful cast and an inventive script written by the director himself, “Tampopo” remains one of the best comedies from Japan which will surely be enjoyed by many generations of cinephiles to come. Just remember to keep quiet in the cinema and please don’t crinkle with your snacks.