Nowadays, at least in the humble community of Southern California, there’s a noodle house on practically every corner. Ramen isn’t simply a noodle dish purchased at the supermarket by bachelors and starving students, it’s now widely seen as a delicacy with specialty shops crafting these soups with care. It is hard to imagine that the story of a little noodle house in Japan could be the inspiration for a movie and even harder to believe that it’s the inspiration for one of the most unique pieces of cinema ever to emerge from Japan, but Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo is all of those things. Tampopo is a vibrant, quirky piece of cinema that cooks up its delicious broth with tales of food and love intertwined with some madcap humor. Now Tampopo is the subject of a gorgeous 4K restoration from Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. While you certainly don’t want to miss the restoration of Tampopo, you certainly don’t want to see it on an empty stomach.
The central story of Jûzô Itami’s film centers round a ramen shop run by Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother trying her best to run her modest noodle house. When two truckers, Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe), stop in for a meal on a rainy night, they’re unmoved by the ramen served by the struggling restauranteur. Gorô takes a liking to Tampopo and even takes up fisticuffs to defend her honor from the drunken contractor Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), and later decides to help her turn her restaurant into a premiere ramen house. Along with Gun, Gorô assembles a team that will guide Tampopo into a master of noodle making, including the noodle-making master (Yoshi Katô), Shôhei (Kinzô Sakura), a chef currently working as a chauffeur, and even Pisuken. Before Tampopo can try to win over the public and her ruthless competitors, she must first prove her ramen to the team assembled to help her, and that’s not going to be easy.
But Tampopo doesn’t just follow its eponymous character and her struggles to master her craft. The film also goes off on amusing tangents starting with its opening scene where the Man in White Suit (Kôji Yakusho), as he’s known, breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience about food, the movies, life and death – giving the audience a little appetizer as to all the themes the film will cover. The Man in White Suit and his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) are the only characters that appear more than once, often blending sexuality with their consumption of various delicacies.
Among the more amusing tangents that Itami takes with his film includes a business lunch where each member the table orders the exact same thing with the lone exception of the group’s youngest member, whose deviation is galling break from Japanese business tradition. The young man ignores the under the table kicks from his superior as he orders, and when he’s finished the table is left with nothing but red faces. Another absurd little segment involves an elderly woman squashing various pieces of food across the aisles of a supermarket and the shopkeeper chasing her in vain to stop the damaging of his merchandise. The oddest of all the segments and the most darkly comedic involves an ailing wife, his family and doctor at her bedside as she lay on the verge of death. But the matriarch rises at the behest of her husband to cook dinner. Like a zombie chef, she prepares a meal for her family before dropping lifelessly to the ground. The family mourns and weeps over their recently departed mother while the father commands that the children enjoy the final meal she ever cooked.
As much as Tampopo is about life and love, with food operating as a universal connector between these two, it’s also as much about the movies. In its own special way, Tampopo is a western about ramen. Gorô and Gun ride into town, the former wearing a hat very similar to a cowboy hat. He rolls in a stranger and fights a brute before sticking around to make things right in his eyes. Upon completion, the hero rides off into the sunset. The only key difference being that Gorô isn’t training town folk to fight a nefarious robber baron, instead he’s helping someone tap into their palate as a means to gain self-sufficiency. But Gorô isn’t the Man with No Name. He doesn’t ride alone, and he relies on the assistance of numerous people to carry out his chivalrous mission.
Tampopo is as vibrant and delicious as it was 30 years ago when it debuted. Jûzô Itami’s film is given a lush restoration that brings its colors popping off the screen and never allows the eccentric personality of the movie to feel the least bit watered down. If there’s a gripe to be had about Tampopo, and a minor one at that, it would be that the sound of people slurping noodles might get a bit tiresome. This is a movie that is brimming with passion for life, love, movies, and food. It’s simply infectious, like that aroma that fills a home when a meal in on the verge of completion. Tampopo whets your appetite and leaves you hungry for more when it’s all over.
Tampopo opens October 28th at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and more theaters in following weeks.
A classic of Japanese cinema, Tampopo is an eccentric movie with a vibrant and unique construction that centers on the story of an underdog noodle house with side dishes that focus on life, death, love, movies, and food.