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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tampopo - A Film Review

The Film Forum is screening the 1985 classic Japanese film Tampopo, written and directed by Juzo Itami, beginning on October 21st. Tampopo is a classic "foodie" film, a film that celebrates how a country's culture influences people and their relationships with food and people. The film is a charming delight, and as it unfolds, it feels more like a story of Japan than just about a singular plot thread.

The film begins with a great fourth wall sequence, in which a stylish gangster in a white linen suit and brimmed hat (Koji Yakusho) is at the movies with his mistress, and speaking to the real-life movie theater audience. He professes his love for the movies, but can't stand interruptions during the film, and intimidates a potato chip-eating patron with a crinkling chip bag into silence. It is a wonderful opening, and the gangster returns sporadically throughout the film, in a side plot where he and his mistress stay in a luxury hotel room and engage in erotic food play.

Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is the titular character, a middle-aged and kind widow of a ramen noodle shop owner who is struggling to keep their hole-in-the-wall place afloat, albeit with limited funds, a deteriorating gray interior, raising her son, and not having a natural talent for cooking. Enter two ramen connoisseurs, two truck drivers who compare the rituals and pleasures of eating different types of ramen, and have stopped for a quick bite on a rainy night while on a schedule. The elder is Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and his younger sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe in his breakthrough performance). They are aghast at how decrepit and run-down the shop is, how poorly Tampopo prepares the ramen (lukewarm noodles, soggy vegetables), and that she is in dire need of help in her cooking and hospitality.

Goro ends up getting into a fight with a fellow customer, and wakes up the next day in Tampopo's home. As she gets to know the truckers, she asks for their honest opinion of her noodles. They reply, "They are sincere, but lack character." She asks them to help her turn her shop around and learn the art of noodle-making, so they take her under their wing, teaching her about the personal care and touch that comes to cooking beyond just following recipe directions. They take her to rival restaurants, and sneak around to learn their secrets, and their strengths and weaknesses, such as rifling through their garbage, posing as customers, or, with Tampopo's innocent charm and unassuming ways, drawing out secrets through slyly insulting the cook.  To paraphrase, "These noodles aren't as good as last week's. You must have boiled them wrong." "Nonsense! I boiled them at the right temperature. ' "Maybe the vegetables are old and wilted." "Not at all! I order the best from Kyoto!" "Maybe it's just me." "It probably is." "Thank you."

Tampopo's relationships with the truckers, as well as with other forthcoming noodle experts, is based on mutual appreciation, and their encouragement and guidance helps her to open up more and gain confidence in herself, and to not feel like she is dying along with the noodle shop. Her face opens up more in acceptance of the world, and it is wonderful to see her relax and look less weary. When she celebrates with Goro at a fine restaurant, her red and black ensemble of a dress and hat is reminiscent of Joan Collins in Dynasty, a working-class person's idea of what the pinnacle of 80's glamour would be, and while the outfit isn't really "her" (Goro says that her high fashion appearance makes it harder for him to speak to her, like as an equal), it is a nice way of her trying to grow more and celebrate her higher ambitions of being a master noodle expert.

What is special about this film is that it has a modesty to it that is endearing, that the story is about ordinary people who have a passion for food made with love and care, and they enjoy the small pleasures of life in a delicious meal. The film deters from the story of Tampopo into side stories and vignettes featuring other Japanese characters and their relationships with food. The gangster and his mistress are recurring characters, and there are also stories with an elderly rich man who flagrantly disobeys his adult daughter's rules to avoid rich or spicy foods; a grocery store clerk trying to catch an older woman customer who is fixated on squeezing food; a dying mother who, while just barely conscious, gathers just enough strength to cook a final meal for her family; a subordinate worker who shocks his class-conscious superiors by using his higher culinary knowledge to order his meal at their business dinner at a gourmet French restaurant (while the rest each order the same and unadventurous meal), and other stories.

The film is about human life and food and culture, and stands out as one of the best foreign films to become popular in America. "Foodie" movies are quite common, especially ones that can act as a gateway to audiences who may be turned off by subtitles, but enjoy watching cooking shows and seeing foreign cuisines being prepared, much like in Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate. Tampopo has been an inspiration for many ramen restaurants around the world, being named after the film, and the Brittany Murphy film The Ramen Girl, about a American woman in Japan learning how to make ramen, greatly references the film, with a cameo by Yamazaki. The film is a lovely movie that encompasses a lot of what makes Japan special and unique in its food and community cultures, and is a true delight to watch.

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