I got nostalgic for this flick (タンポポ, 1985, dir. Jūzō Itami) after seeing a Mefi thread on it, so my wife and I watched it again. Not only does it hold up well, I think it’s just about a perfect movie.

tampopo

A recap, if you missed it: Two truck drivers, Gorō and Gun, get hungry for ramen, and stop at a hole-in-the-wall shop run by Tampopo, widow of the previous owner. They get into a fight with the thuggish customers and get beaten up. Tampopo takes care of Gorō, and asks him how the ramen was.  The answer is, not good.  It’s “sincere, but lacks character.” Tampopo is desperate to make the best possible ramen, and Gorō takes on the task of training her.

This turns out, like a video game quest, to involve an escalating series of complications: spying on other restaurants, strength training, and building an unlikely fraternity of counselors: the king of the hobos who knows all about broth; a rich man’s chauffeur who knows noodles; and finally the thuggish customer who was bothering Tampopo earlier: after a fistfight with Gorō he becomes a pal and offers to remodel the restaurant.

This sounds like a thin plot for a movie, and that’s the first joke. Yes, they’re treating this as an epic quest, with overtones of samurai movies and Westerns– Gorō even has the hat for it. And yes, it’s like finding the perfect barbecue or gyros: ramen is (or was at the time of the movie) unpretentious street food.

But people are passionate about food, and that’s really the theme of the movie. At one point Gorō  is building up Tampopo’s strength by having her run (while he rides a bicycle). We see a line of businessmen, and “for some reason” (as Itami says in the making-of documentary) the camera follows them. This turns into one of many vignettes about food. The businessmen go to a fancy French restaurant, and all the important people– who can’t read the menu– order the same thing. Only the youngest (it’s obviously his first such outing) consults with the waiter, and orders an excellently chosen gourmet meal with appropriate wine. The five others stare at him, completely red-faced.

Most of the vignettes revolve around a joke, but some are about sex: they center on a yakuza and his girlfriend, both dressed all in white, who use food as foreplay. The yakuza meets his comeuppance near the end of the film, and as he lies dying, confides to the crying girl a recipe for boar sausages he would have liked to share with her.

On a less intense level, the film shows a developing romance between Tampopo and Gorō . But Gorō moves on at the end.  He has to, as a Western hero or as a video game protagonist. The next quest awaits.

It’s hard to convey in words just how assured and controlled Itami’s film is. The tone could falter at any moment. We could lose interest in the vignettes; we could find the overall ramen quest silly; the actors could play it too seriously or too hammily. But it never does falter. At one point early in the movie an elderly man is teaching a young man how to eat ramen. He says, in the reverential tone of every martial arts master on film, “Caress the pork slices with your chopsticks.” It’s absurd, but it’s delivered completely straight, and it works. The film is about people who are passionate for food, to the point of being a little ridiculous. And it’s like, yeah, why shouldn’t we be both passionate and ridiculous about food?

The making-of documentary has a fascinating bit where Itami plays the final scene for us three times, with different choices for the music– not even choosing different music, just differing places to start. It’s a little lesson in rhythm and the emotional effect of music, and another demonstration of Itami’s attention to detail.

I don’t think you can watch this film without coming out hungry for ramen. Or the beautiful rice omelette that’s made at one point.  Or boar sausages.

There is way, way more to the movie than I could explain without going to film school. Apparently it’s full of homages to other movies, Japanese and Western. The choice of actors must be meaningful: Itami seems to have assembled every older character actor in Japan.

If there’s any very slight weakness in the film, it may be Tampopo herself. She’s the perfect martial arts student: quiet, but whip-smart, absorbing everything she sees in order to win the big boss battle at the end (in this case, the final ramen-tasting). There’s nothing wrong with her, but maybe that itself is something wrong. She isn’t really allowed to have any vices or make any mistakes. But perhaps that’s what the other characters and the vignettes are for. (And maybe our own convention that the hero has to be flawed needs to be challenged.)

Interesting factoid: the actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, was 40 when the movie was made. She was also Itami’s wife, and the son in the movie was their actual son.

From the Mefi thread, this appears to be a movie that only a minority of people have seen, but that almost everyone remembers with affection. So, enjoy, and then have a great meal.

 

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