Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki Nobuko Miyamoto Ken Watanabe Koji Yakusho Rikiya Yasuoka
Running time: 114 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
"Tampopo" is one of those films that occupied a spot at the top of my endless to-see list of Japanese cinema for a very, very long time. I first heard about the so-called “first Japanese noodle Western” years ago, and was enticed by descriptions of it as an affectionate ode to food thinly disguised as a crowd-pleasing underdog story. Later, when I learned of the involvement of great filmmaker Juzo Itami (whose first film, "The Funeral," I greatly enjoyed) and such notable actors as Koji Yakusho and Ken Watanabe, my eagerness to see the film only intensified. Alas, I discovered that the DVD was something of a rarity, only available to purchase from independent sellers at ridiculously steep prices and high in demand as a rental. So I added "Tampopo" to the top of my Zip queue and waited, and waited. But now I have finally seen Itami’s beloved second film – and it was certainly worth the wait.
The titular character (played by Nobuko Miyamoto, who was married to Itami until his death in 1997 and appeared in all of his films) is a struggling roadside noodle shop proprietress and single mother of a young son. One rainy night, in true Western fashion, an alluring stranger appears: the truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) with his partner Gun (Watanabe) in tow. After taking note of her lackluster cooking methods and fighting off a gang of bullies, they vow to help turn her place into one of the best eateries in town. They soon put her to work with athletic-style training sessions, observing (and sometimes stealing) competitors’ techniques and recipes and re-designing the entire décor of her restaurant. Along the way, other helpful benefactors join their team à la "Seven Samurai," including Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka), a gruff contractor; Shohei (Kinzoh Sakura), a gifted noodle chef and an old master who presides over a group of mangy beggars with highly developed culinary tastes.
That is the central narrative strand of "Tampopo," but part of what makes Itami’s film so delightful is how it wanders over to separate episodes that all have one thing in common: a passion for food. Many of them feature Yakusho’s character, a mysterious yakuza clad in white who, in the film’s meta-cinematic opening scene, seats himself with his mistress in a movie theatre as a table full of food and drink is set up before them. Breaking the fourth wall, he warns the audience not to interrupt the film with watch alarms or, ironically, sounds from snacks. We see him at various points throughout the film, most often engaged with his lover in what could be called “food play,” in which they savor food and sex all at once and in equal measure. A justly famous scene focuses in close-up on them transferring an egg yolk back and forth between their conjoined mouths. Other side stories drop in on a young executive who dares to order a grand lunch for himself while his comparatively frugal superiors growl and blush in silent protest, a pearl diver whose offering of a fresh oyster to Yakusho is presented as an erotically-charged epiphany, a food-fondling old lady who wreaks havoc in a grocery store and a man who arrives home just in time for his dying wife to cook their family one last meal. All of these stories and more not only savor the sumptuous delights of food, but also show compassion and humor worthy of Ozu, Renoir or Truffaut. Many times, Itami pulls off a perfect moment of pure humanism, like the one in which a man recovering from dental surgery shares his ice cream cone with a timid tyke.
The main tone present throughout "Tampopo" is one of quirkiness and camp, but it remains fun and fresh throughout its entire duration. More remarkable, though, is how Itami nurtures genuine empathy for all of its characters – particularly for Goro and Tampopo. Late in the film, the two of them go on a quiet date together and share their previous experiences with love and family. At this point, as their bittersweet love story unfurls, you suddenly become aware of just how much you care for these characters. You not only desperately want to see Tampopo succeed with her restaurant, but also to find happiness and balance in her life. That Itami can evoke such strong feelings while also composing a love letter to dining and throwing in playful references to everything from American Westerns to Charlie Chaplin to Kon Ichikawa’s "The Burmese Harp" is an impressive feat.
"Tampopo" is one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I’ve had in some time, and it was well worth waiting to see it. More than a certified classic of Japanese cinema, it is a generous, jam-packed smorgasbord that mixes together love, death, rivalry, comedy, obsession and mischief all into one perfect film. Oh, and one more thing that you can count on from "Tampopo": if you don’t have a rumbling appetite or fierce craving when it starts, you definitely will by the time it ends, so make sure a suitable eating establishment is nearby for afterwards.