Few movies did more to introduce westerners to contemporary Japan and its sense of humor than Juzo Itami's culinary comedy Tampopo (1985). The film was a watershed work among foreign films released in the late-1980. Up to then, casual moviegoers who occasionally watched foreign movies seemed to think of Japanese cinema only in terms of samurai cut-ups, even though they make, and had been making, far more contemporary comedies than any other genre. Tampopo changed all that. Western audiences were surprised that the Japanese had such a wonderful a sense of humor, and such an obsession with food. Tampopo whetted Americans' appetite for Japanese cuisine, especially ramen, the noodle soup which is at the film's core.
The picture is a series of mediations on food, many short sketch-like pieces lasting but a few minutes. A supermarket manager (Masahiko Tsugawa) chases an old woman (Izuma Hara) who pinches all the produce; a lowly and abused junior executive shows up his snooty bosses at an intimidating, classy restaurant. An etiquette teacher (Mariko Okada) teaches her students how to eat Italian pasta, which they want to slurp in the Japanese manner. A gangster (Koji Yakusho, from Shall We Dance?) has hilariously kinky sex with his girlfriend (Fukumi Kuroda), using everything from egg yolks to crustaceans as aphrodisiacs. An old man (Shuji Otaki) nearly chokes to death on a taffy-like wad of mochi, as a panic-stricken restaurant owner uses a vacuum cleaner to dislodge the obstruction from the man's throat. Most of the vignettes are rooted in reality. A handful of seniors citizens really do die each year eating mochi, and the vacuum-extraction method is, apparently, not unheard of.
The main vignette, however, is the story of pixyish Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a middle-aged single mother and owner of a dying ramen shop. A Shane-like truck driver, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki, the kidnapper from Kurosawa's High and Low) and his buddy, Gun (Ken Watanabe, of The Last Samurai), offer to help Tampopo perfect her recipe, and turn the shop into a thriving business. Goro in particular knows his noodles from years on the road.
Tampopo was the second feature directed by Juzo Itami, a former actor whose eclectic credits in that field include everything from the made-in-Spain Samuel Bronston epic 55 Days at Peking (1963) to Koji Wakamatsu's subversive The Notorious Concubines (1969) and Yoshimitsu Morita's The Family Game (1983). He poured his earnings into his first directorial effort, The Funeral (1984), which was a big commercial and critical success. Tampopo isn't quite as good, but much like a great bowl of ramen, is highly satisfying. And more so than The Funeral, Tampopo proved the perfect showcase for the director's wife, the luminous Nobuko Miyamoto.
She was at the center to all but one of his subsequent films. They say Ozu kept making the same movie over and over, and one could argue that Tampopo set the mold for most of the rest of director Itami's career. But it didn't matter. His films only got better. His next work, A Taxing Woman (1987) was equally popular and acclaimed both here and in Japan. Itami continued making movies, but after A Taxing Woman's Return, U.S. distributors lost interest in Itami's films, even though they remained consistently popular domestically. Minbo – or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992), with Miyamoto as a Yakuza-fighting legal expert, was Itami's best work to date, and so rattled the real Japanese Mob that Itami was viciously attacked, and later died under mysterious circumstances many still believe was basically a mob hit.
The obsession Tampopo's characters all have with good eating is only very slightly exaggerated. Japanese television is overrun with cooking shows; it seems like three-quarters of everything on Japanese TV is either a cooking show or something else that sneakily incorporates a cooking segment ("Make Chicken Gumbo with Ultraman!"). Westerners tend to think of Japanese cuisine in terms of hot rice and raw fish, but the average Japanese pallet seems far more sensitive than most Americans. (It also has one facet that took this reviewer years to understand: the Japanese pallet is attuned to texture as much as taste.) The Japanese love Italian pasta and French pastries, and just as they did with American cars, have effectively copied and perhaps even improved upon the Italian and French original recipes. So sensitive is the Japanese pallet they can distinguish the style of ramen of two nearby cities, and are aware of and will seek out a particular city's culinary specialties. For instance, my Japanese wife and I once took a five-hour train ride because she was dying to try a particular city's blowfish.
Video & Audio
Fox Lorber recently sent DVD Talk a review copy of Tampopo, but I can't imagine why. The title was first released way back in 1998, and what was sent appears to be exactly that same version. It's the same unimpressive transfer, in 4:3 letterboxed (1.85:1) format, non-anamorphic. The English subtitles are fine, but the picture looks like a regular theatrical print. The DVD's sound is very flat mono, even though Tampopo was released in Japan in Dolby Stereo. The only Extras are skimpy filmographies.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.