Written and directed by Jûzô Itami, “Tampopo” is a Japanese comedy structured similarly to many Ronin Samurai films and American Westerns in particular. The film opens with an opulently dressed couple sitting down in a theater and directly addressing the camera in a scene that cleverly functioned as a warning to audience members eating too loudly, in fact the Gangster in white (Kôji Yakusho) threatened another patron that opened a bag of chips, good stuff. After which the film transfixes its attention to the small ramen shop owner, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).
A pair of blue collar truck drivers stop during a heavy rainstorm on their route, hungry for noodles in broth. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) enter the small noodle shop filled to the brim with locals. One of the drunkards at the noodle bar Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka) keeps pestering the small woman behind the counter, offering her romance and trips to Paris, but his belligerence and disrespect eventually get to Goro and he offers Pisuken a fight. Unfortunately for Goro, Pisuken’s fellow drunkards get involved. The morning after Goro awakens to find himself bruised and battered in Tampopo’s kitchen. From there they discuss her ramen technique; she’s got potential, but she’s not that great either. Goro shows her a few techniques for housing him after the fight, but when he goes to leave she begs him to let her be his disciple, to learn the ways of a true ramen master and turn her little shop into a new favorite in town.
The rest of the film lies in Goro and Gun helping Tampopo learn by watching other ramen masters in the area, running training trials, and by eventually bumping into or seeking out other noodle guru’s with their own recipes and techniques that they’re willing to share. One of the most fascinating aspects of this film however are the multitude of short diversions that the film takes away from the main plot. All of these side vignettes are directly related to food and the different relationships the Japanese have with their food. The camera will often float away from the main plot to suddenly follow a random passerby and explore their relationship to food. We see a group of middle-aged executives all order the same thing from a restaurant menu- while their intern orders very specific and expensive food and wine to the chagrin of his red-faced elders. In this same high-end restaurant we a group of Japanese women studying Western etiquette, the lesson being on how to properly eat spaghetti- the tutor’s main suggestion is that silence while eating this dish is of high importance in western settings. However a gentleman of Caucasian complexion a few tables over begins loudly slurping his own spaghetti which leads to the entire class imitating the man and ignoring their superior. There’s also a fun game of cat and mouse in another vignette of a shopowner being terrorized by a little old lady sneaking about his shop squeezing and pinching all of his edible wares. There are more of these little independent stories littered throughout the film, and each has it’s own peculiar flavor.
This little film caught me by surprise. It has heart, humor, wit, AND charm! “Tampopo” is a small peek into the Japanese culture’s relationship with food and how it relates to appetite, independence, sexuality, love, and adversity. Beyond that the film is a laugh factory- I didn’t expect to find myself in the throes of chortling convulsions and snickering howls. In the end Tampopo’s ramen shop is transformed into a bustling display of skill and comfort, all thanks to the help of her ramen warriors. I highly recommend this film, you can find it on the newly operational Criterion Channel, a streaming service filled to the brim with foreign films, classic American films, and all flavors of art-house cinema.
Final Score: 5 Ramen warriors and 1 Tampopo!