Japan is an intensely odd and endearing speck of dirt on this earth. Were it not for the wile and guile of certain imaginative Japanese folk, the world would have lived without most of its high-end hardware, its wealth and diversity of anime, and perhaps most of all (for most at least), ramen noodles.
The star of the film
I cannot begin to speak about the surprisingly storied history and culture behind your average bowl of noodles – instant or otherwise. But what I can tell you is this: A properly prepared bowl of noodles, regardless of its geographic origin, is an absolute force of nature. A form of art in stringy, chewy form, steeped in a broth of pure heritage. I really like noodles is the point I’m frankly failing to get at here. So when a film entirely dedicated to the struggles of perfecting your noodle technique presents itself, and flawlessly so I might add, I could feel no more intense need than to share it with you, dear reader. Make sure you eat a good meal beforehand, because this is Tampopo: the world’s most aesthetic and loving ode to food.
You can hear this image
What Is It?
Tampopo (literally: Dandelion) is a unique genre of film in every sense of the sentiment. Directed by Juzi Itami, a man unlike any other, it is a 1985 “Ramen Western.” flick which is essentially about a ragtag group of comrades dedicated to turning one downtrodden woman’s piddly noodle restaurant into a 5-star noodle establishment. It starred popular Japanese talent the likes of Tsutomu Yamazaki (Goro), Nobuko Miyamoto (the titular Tampopo), and Koji Yakusho (The mobster), and a very young Ken Watanabe (Gun).
Goro and Tampopo have the most subtle romance
Notice how I said “Ramen Western” as opposed to your average Spaghetti Western. Tampopo is essentially a Japanese take (hence ramen) on Italian-produced Old West flicks (hence Spaghetti). Essentially, this is every Western that Clint Eastwood has been in, except instead of shootouts and saloons, it’s about eating and noodle joints. It is one of the very few films where both the late Roger Ebert, and the (somewhat detrimental) ratings site Rotten Tomatoes have given it full marks. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things.
This guy will haunt you
What’s So Special About It?
I am honestly finding it hard to write about this film. Not because it’s a complex work of art, or a lack of prose on my end. But because my love for this film makes it emotionally and practically difficult to restrict my words on it to (hopefully) under a thousand. To start (literally); Tampopo possesses one of the best opening scenes in all of cinema – one that perfectly sums up the sanctity of going to the movies, as you can see below.
Please learn this
Now that I’ve somewhat set the scene, we can get into the actual core of the film: food. The whole premise of the film revolves around the titular Tampopo improving her noodle recipe, seeing as how her noodling skills have fallen from grace following the death of her husband. She’s a single mother, and a business owner all the same. And with the help of two all-night truckers with aspirations for perfect noodles, she goes through a rigorous gauntlet of physical training à la Rocky, deeply philosophical contemplation on the overall approach to ramen preparation, and many, many spying and reconnaissance missions at other, more successful ramen places.
One of our protagonists’ rival noodle gangs
It’s a grand adventure from start to finish, almost as if you’re watching The Hobbit. Except instead of rings and goblins, it’s chicken bones and cutthroat ramen chefs. Each character introduced has a fantastical element about them: Goro and Gun are the strong, methodical types who orchestrate the goings-on from their frankly inspirational dedication to customer satisfaction and economy of movement. The fabled vagabond Sensei – who lost his gynaecology practice due to his madness for ramen – joins as a form of philosophical mentor and soup expert. The rowdy Pisuken adds a layer of camaraderie and support to the troupe, offering to give Tampopo’s poor restaurant a tasteful facelift, while seemingly inept chauffeur Shohei sports expansive expertise when it comes to the actual noodles and their preparation. It’s like Seven Samurai, or its American adaptation, The Magnificent Seven. Except in this case, it’s The Food-tastic Five.
Left to right: Pisuken, Goro, Gun, Sensei, and Shohei
One of the most charming facets of Tampopo is the completely random segues into entirely different scenarios. Our mobster in white is routinely seen doing different, albeit food-related shenanigans with his lady friend. There’s even a particularly raunchy (and 18+) scene involving a shrimp. It’s as if the camera mimics the all too human phenomenon of daydreaming. Our main story line is so smoothly interrupted by some other goings on, involving completely random and often disjointed characters (in the best possible way). And the kicker? They all involve food. Take the below scene for example, which I believe teaches something very valuable when it comes to individuality and taste (at least that’s what my mind tells me).
Notice how slow and easily paced every movement and gesture is
Immediately after this scene comes another, perhaps more iconic scene. In which a bunch of preppy housewives try to learn about Western food etiquette.
Tampopo’s soundtrack is almost entirely just sounds of people enjoying their meal
These sporadic, almost nonsensical diversions from the main plot add flavour to the overall experience. Much like the many strategic ingredients that go into a bowl of ramen noodles, they might seem random, but they mesh so well together, and with the rest of the film.
Why the Hell Wouldn’t I Watch This?
Have you noticed my bias towards Tampopo yet? In all seriousness though; few films out there manage to make food – noodles in this case – far more interesting than any other typically enticing aspect of a film. I’m going to quote Mister Ebert one more time on this one.
Consider, for example, the tour de force of a scene near the beginning of the movie, where a noodle master explains the correct ritual for eating a bowl of noodle soup. He explains every ingredient. How to cut it, how to cook it, how to address it, how to think of it, how to regard it, how to approach it, how to smell it, how to eat it, how to thank it, how to remember it. It’s a kind of gastronomic religion, and director Juzo Itami creates a scene that makes noodles in this movie more interesting than sex and violence in many another.
Ken Watanabe was surprisingly cute and non-threatening in this
I cannot recommend this film enough, try as I might. It’s a comedy that doesn’t care about what people think is funny or not. It’s incredibly Japanese in each and every detail, especially in its brand of humour. But what I find endearing about humour as a universal concept is that it can often transcend borders, languages, and sensibilities. You don’t need to know much about Japanese culture, you don’t need to know much about anything to enjoy Tampopo. All you need to do is eat beforehand, because it’ll make you ravenous, and it’ll give you a newfound respect for food in all its shapes and forms.