The backbone of the film is the story of Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a widowed noodle shop owner whose attempts at ramen are decidedly underwhelming. One rainy evening, she is visited by Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (a young Ken Watanabe). Through a complicated series of events best left for viewers to experience themselves, Goro ends up agreeing to mentor Tampopo in the art making great ramen. This narrative is broken up by a series of comic, tragic, and romantic vignettes involving random, often anonymous characters, including a low-level mobster who obsesses over the movies, a man with a foul-smelling toothache, and an elderly lady with a compulsion to grope the food in her local grocery store.
Although many films may tackle more weighty or complex subjects than Tampopo, Itami has a knack for finding that sweet spot between his own skill at visual storytelling and using recognizable elements that allow the viewer to bring their own emotional baggage into the film. When Goro and Gun first arrive in Tampopo's shop, Goro notes that her water isn't boiling. It's a simple explanation for why her noodles aren't very good, but it also conveys what it must feel like for the characters to eat the tepid noodles, even suggests what the atmosphere and aroma of the noodle bar might be. As Tampopo and her various teammates start building up the perfect noodle recipe, each new step or ingredient adds its own aroma and flavor, penetrating right through the screen and into the audience's memory. Itami doesn't stop there, either: he finds ways to convey texture as a factor as well. The aforementioned grandmother (Sen Hara), in the middle of a delightful cat-and-mouse sequence with a disgruntled store manager (Masahiko Tsugawa), passionately squeezes a block of cheese, and Itami gives us a close-up of the substance curling around her fingers. In another bizarre vignette, a man (Toshiya Fujita) gets ice cream following a successful tooth surgery, and the melting treat coats his lips. The gangster (Koji Yakusho) and his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) bring food into the bedroom, including a live prawn that wiggles and contorts underneath a bowl pressed against the girl's belly, in a sequence that is as sexy as it is absurdly hilarious.
Itami sees a connection to food and sex. Although that connection is never explicitly stated, there is a sense of a natural link somewhere. It could be the banality of food as a functional necessity for everybody, and sex as a functional necessity for the species. Tampopo is unbiased about the types of foods and ways of experiencing food that people enjoy, and it is filled with a range of unique faces and body types. Another possibility is that food and sex can both be a ritualistic, sensory indulgence. One vignette in a restaurant finds an American tourist seated within earshot of a women's etiquette class. The students are quickly but inevitably overwhelmed by the sound of the man slurping up his spaghetti with an animalistic passion. In another famous aside, the gangster and his mistress also do an incredible trick with a raw egg yolk that is better seen than described, which ends with another beat that conveys texture. Of course, too many indulgences can a path to an early grave, and thus death also enters the movie -- not just the death of human beings, as in a black comic sequence involving a husband rushing home to his dying wife, but also the deaths of animals. Although Tampopo is a bright and deeply pleasurable film, it does contain an uncooked pig head in one scene, and worse, the on-screen death of a turtle in another.
Meanwhile, in the background, there is Tampopo and Goro, still working hard to transform her noodle shop into something special. Miyamoto, who was married to Itami until his unfortunate death in 1997, is perfectly cast, seguing between tones and styles of performance as the film as a whole shifts. The story of Goro is built around the bones of a classic western (Shane in particular), but in other ways, what was once a distinct parody has become a more general send-up of movie tropes as a whole, as culture has increasingly digested itself. That's not to say the dilution of the film's intended spoofing has affected how funny the movie is; the movie is still packed with strange and unexpected laughs. Rivalries turn into alliances, partnership gives way to the possibility of a relationship, and all around Tampopo and Goro, the world is filled with people that Itami's eye keeps flicking to, seeing what they're up to. It would be impossible to avoid comparing the film to a great ramen: each unique ingredient adds something special to the movie.
The Video and Audio
From there, we get the new stuff that Criterion has created for the disc. First, there is an interview with Nobuko Miyamoto (11:10), who talks about her memories of what Itami was like, her attraction to the character of Tampopo, and her pleasure at the idea that audiences today still love the movie (not to mention, the curious trivia that Japanese audiences were the least receptive to it -- the film's legacy exists mostly outside of its home country). Next, there is a fascinating interview with food stylist Seiko Ogawa (15:53). I had no idea what to expect from this, but it's a delightfully endearing discussion of what went into the preparation of the ramen (both "good" and "bad" varieties), as well as the experience of working with Itami and the kinds of requests he had for the look of the food on the film. Ogawa has lots of lovely memories of the shoot itself and seems to have taken great care to respect the story and what Itami was trying to do with the movie, and she shares her own insights about the film itself.
Next, we have some analysis:. There is a video essay (10:04) by Tony Zhou (who edits and narrates the lovely online video criticism series "Every Frame a Painting") and Taylor Ramos, examining the meaning of "amateur" and how that plays into the film's thesis. It's a fascinating take on the film, which I admit isn't anything like what I came up with. There is also an appreciation of ramen (22:20) featuring chefs Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Ivan Orkin, and ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki. This is arguably the least-essential featurette on the disc, as the participants mostly talk about their opinions on the film, although it is fun to see Oosaki discuss, in a scholarly tone, whether or not there is a right way to eat ramen, in reference to the beginning of Tampopo. (It's also maybe a bit curious that no Asian ramen chefs were interviewed, although I don't want that to read as a criticism of any of the chefs who participated.)
Finally, the disc concludes with Juzo Itami's 1962 debut film Rubber Band Pistol (32:39). The short doesn't have the discipline in structure that Tampopo has, feeling like a 32-minute tangent hanging out with a bunch of Japanese teenagers as they whittle the day away, but there is evidence of his wild and inventive style.
An original theatrical trailer for Criterion's re-release of Tampopo has also been included.