01st May2017

‘Tampopo’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Rikiya Yasuoka | Written and Directed by Juzo Itami


The life and death of actor and director Juzo Itami is an incredible story in itself (he was allegedly killed by the Yakuza following his gangster movie Minbo), but he was no slouch in putting bizarre stories on the silver screen, either. His sophomore directorial effort, Tampopo (literally, “Dandelion”), was made in 1985 and is probably his best-known film.

A pair of truckers – youngster Gun (Ken Watanabe) and elder Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) – chat about ramen (a noodle-based Japanese dish), so decide to stop at a roadside restaurant to satisfy themselves. The place belongs to a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife). Desperate to improve her business, she implores the straight-talking Goro to help her turn it into the best restaurant in town.

While Goro and Tampopo go about researching the best recipes and employing various oddball characters to refurbish the restaurant and perfect its dishes, we are treated to numerous food-related vignettes. These scenes are basically sketches, without direct relevance to the main plot, and are farcical in tone. For example, one involves an old lady going around squeezing all the food in a shop, while the store owner stalks her with a fly swat, waiting to pounce.

One of the main subplots involves an ill-fated gangster and his moll, who use food as a means of kinky intimacy, but whose passion must end in tragedy. This might have been an interesting way of metaphorically depicting Tampopo’s life before her husband’s death, but predominantly it’s another excuse for Itami to parody Hollywood movie tropes. The gangster movie and the western (spaghetti/ramen, get it?) are always in his sights.

It’s also indicative of the awkwardly fragmented narrative, whose main plot – concerning itself with themes of self-improvement, and recovering from grief through empowerment and occupation – would be sufficient on its own. It wouldn’t be such an issue if the cutaways were tremendously funny, but more often than not they’re one-joke skits which outstay their welcome.

It’s a pity because the core movie is a good one (could we have seen a leaner, 90-minute cut?), and the blossoming relationship between Goro and Tampopo is affecting. Yamazaki and Miyamoto infuse their characters with a broth of world-weariness and vulnerability respectively. Both are stereotypes (he’s the infallible wanderer who rides in to right the wrongs of a town; she’s the damsel, struggling in a man’s world), but both go on to defy their tropes.

Eminently good-natured and humane, Tampopo’s personal triumph is inevitable yet nonetheless earned. The final takeaway is that life satisfaction is not a human right, and to be the best version of oneself takes effort – and often a little help. The film’s scattershot, sketch-show structure may confound, and the satirical and situational styles of humour may not be en vogue, but Tampopo is worth it for the sweet, simple story at its centre.

Extensive extras include a contemporary ‘making of’ feature; modern interviews with Miyamoto and food stylist Seiko Ogawa; a video essay on the central themes of craft and self-advancement; interviews with ramen experts about the film’s influence on food culture in Japan and abroad; plus Itami’s 1962 debut short film, Rubber Band Pistol.

Tampopo is out on Blu-ray today, May 1st, from Criterion.


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