Tampopo

Studio: Criterion

May 17, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


When culinary maven and noted cineaste Alton Brown talked last fall about the cinematic treatment of food, he repeatedly stressed how a subject’s reaction to eating is usually more important than the meal itself.  Smart filmmakers have long used the act of eating as a method of allowing their characters to reveal themselves to the audience, from Charlie Chaplin gobbling down his shoe in The Gold Rush to Ally Sheedy’s bologna sandwich in The Breakfast Club. An incredible amount of information can be conveyed about a character in what they eat, how they eat it, and, in a high number of examples, how the people around them observe this act.

Tampopo, a 1985 comedy by Japanese director Juzo Itami, is practically a parade of these food reactions. Nearly half the film is a succession of vignettes revolving around oddball characters and the way that food makes them feel (whether they’re eating it, or doing something with it a little less savory.) The most memorable of these moments are a scene in which an etiquette teacher leads a class in the mannerly ways of eating spaghetti, and the tribulations of a grocery clerk who only wants to stop an eccentric old woman from jamming her thumbs in his peaches and Brie. The most hard-to-forget are the multiple scenes revolving around a gangster and his girlfriend. (Fancy food plays a central part in their lovemaking.) Interspersed throughout in bursts of only a few minutes each, these shorts provide alternate angles on the roles food can play in people’s lives – each of them to bizarre, yet humorous, results.   

These sketches aren’t the driving force of Tampopo, however. The movie’s main storyline centers on its title character, Tampopo, a widowed mother of one, whose inherited ramen shop could be considered serviceable at best; at worst, a culinary cesspit. In from a rain storm wander Goro and Gun, two passing truckers with surprisingly discerning palates. They form a comically fast bond with the talentless restauranteur, who begs Goro to be her kitchen sensei. Together, they set on a mission to turn Tampopo’s little dive into one of the city’s best shop through a strict training regimen, tricking secrets out of rival chefs, and getting down to the essentials of what makes a good bowl of ramen.

The film was marketed as a “Ramen Western,” a catchy play on the term “Spaghetti Western,” which is a good descriptor for the movie’s main story, at least from a visual standpoint. You can see it in the way characters are shot from eye level or below; the way telling glances are used in place of dialogue; heck, even Goro’s hat wouldn’t look out of place on Clint Eastwood’s head. (There’s a big ramen taste-off that takes place, of course, at sunrise, just like one of the genre’s classic showdowns.) While the Western influences will delight any fan of a good cowboy movie, Tampopo shares even more tropes with the ‘80s sports film, with its numerous training montages and its central transformation of a starry-eyed wannabe into a lean, mean, ramen-prepping machine. As pointed out on one of the film’s featurettes by a ramen historian, parts of the film bear a strong resemblance to Rocky, and it’s hard to un-see Stallone’s influence here once your attention has been drawn to it.

We’ve made it this far without resorting to lazy food analogies, but you knew that couldn’t be sustained, right? Tampopo is a cinematic buffet, offering a wide medley of flavors in its rapid, comedic scenes. Tampopo’s rebirth story may be its driving force, but the interwoven sketches keep the proceedings fresh and varied despite bearing little relation to the main plot. The movie is lighthearted and funny from head to toe, with even the moments of greatest conflict ultimately being played for laughs. With its foundation in familiar genres like the Western and the Hollywood sports movie, its rhythms will be recognizable to even the most subtitle-averse members of an audience. Tampopo is a movie with little to no cultural barrier.

Needless to say, Criterion’s Blu-ray edition comes with a full-hearted recommendation. Extras are plentiful and include a vintage, feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary, new interviews with star Nobuko Miyamoto and food stylist Seiko Ogawa, video essays with filmmakers and ramen scholars about the film’s themes and legacy, and Juzo Itami’s debut short film from 1962.

www.criterion.com/films/28880-tampopo




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