film

Old School Review: “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set within feudal Japan, the film would lay the groundwork for Kurosawa’s later historical epics “Kagemusha” and “Ran” specifically. Here, once again, we have one of Kurosawa’s favorite leading men in Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the titular Macbeth. After a successful battle, both Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), warriors and friends under Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), return to his castle in ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest. On their way there, they encounter a ghostly spirit who tells them their future, Miki will be made commander of the first fortress and that Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison that same day. The spirit also tells them that Washizu will eventually become the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle itself! Though, she also foretells that Miki’s son will be the next Lord of Spider’s Web Castle after Washizu.

After they return to the castle, both men are shocked when the spirit’s predictions come true and each are given their new titles. Later when Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth here portrayed by Isuzu Yamada), she convinces him to hasten the second part of the witch’s prediction and kill Lord Tsuzuki himself when he next arrives. After some debate they agree and Lady Asaji helps to drug the Lord’s guards during a visitation while Washizu kills his superior in the night. They quickly frame and kill one of the guards, and Washizu is moved up the ladder for his deed in killing the Lord’s assailant. The rest of the film is a quagmire of beautifully orchestrated paranoia and guilt built upon Washizu’s acts and lies, especially once the power couple consider the other part of the prediction- that Miki’s son would follow Washizu as the ruler of ‘Spider’s Web’ Forest Castle. Eventually Washizu seeks out the spirit of the woods once more for assurance as the suspicions and sleeplessness build upon themselves, and it expertly leads into the end sequence in which Washizu’s forces feed on his paranoia and end up killing him by a legion of arrows- his men had begun to harbor suspicions that Washizu himself was Lord Tsuzuki’s killer as well.

When it comes to Shakespeare, admittedly, I enjoy the themes and story structure of his stories (particularly the tragedies) but never from the actual source material itself. This is more of a personal taste issue, but the Olde English is deafening and cumbersome. I recently tried to watch “Henry V” from 1944 directed by Laurence Olivier, but I simply couldn’t get through it. So, I was looking forward to another adaption by Akira Kurosawa. Granted I watched both of his adaptions in “Ran” and “Throne of Blood” out of order, and that may have been a mistake on my part because while I certainly appreciated this film, I was never astonished or transported by the magic of cinema with this film. Thinking back on it, it’s a great adaption, especially with the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role, but it wasn’t enough for me to Love it wholeheartedly as I did with “Ran”. This may also lie in the nature of this adaption and my taste in general. It’s a moody, atmospheric, tragedy littered with the themes of the source material of greed, political ambition, paranoia, and shame. It’s a damn fine film though and my own taste shouldn’t drive you away from a viewing.

Final Score: Dozens of Arrows!

*Here’s a link to a piece that Roger Ebert wrote about Akira Kurosawa shortly after his death in 1998, while it doesn’t have to do explicitly with “Throne of Blood”, it’s a good piece on the legendary filmmaker as a whole, and if you’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa’s work as I have, give it a read:

https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/akira-kurosawa-focused-on-individual-ethical-dilemmas

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Old School Review: “Ran” (1985)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Ran” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set during Japan’s medieval era in which an elder Japanese warlord seeks peace by dividing his kingdom among his three grown sons. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) awakens from a vision after a hunt with his three sons and subordinate clan representatives, to which he decrees his own abdication from the throne. Stunned by the announcement, Hidetora’s three sons each react differently. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest garbed in yellow, is set to be given the first castle while Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) in red, and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) in blue, are to be given the second and third castles in order of age and support Taro as the head of the Ichimonji clan. Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, while Jiro seeks it, and Saburo rejects the whole plan as one destined for failure. For his subversive outburst, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo, and Tango (Masayuki Yui) the lord’s adviser, when he openly supports Saburo’s frankness.

I’ve been working through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography lately, and recently the Criterion Channel (The collection’s streaming service) added the legendary filmmaker’s late-in-career masterpiece to their ranks, and I figured I’d give it a shot. Knowing nothing about the film except that it was an adaption of “King Lear” proved to be a bountiful fortune going into the near three hour film. Of the seven, or so, films of Kurosawa’s that I have seen, this may be my favorite of the bunch so far- and that’s saying something with “Ikiru”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo/Sanjuro” in that bunch! In doing some (very) light research before writing this review, I was surprised to find that Akira Kurosawa had trouble securing funding for this film for roughly a decade before it was finally released. Apparently Kurosawa had been going through a period akin to (but nowhere near as creatively apocalyptic) what Orson Welles went through after making “Citizen Kane”. After teaming with a French producer in Serge Silberman, the film found it’s foundation, and began winding towards one of the most engaging epics set within medieval Japan.

Having acquired most of his kingdom through brutal and ruthless tactics, this story is almost entirely about the consequences of Lord Hidetora’s actions and the ripple effect throughout his family as a result. After Saburo’s (and Tango’s) banishment things quickly go downhill for Lord Hidetora. As he moves into the smaller keep of the first castle he finds that Taro is being manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), into usurping Lord Hidetora after the transition of power to control the whole Ichimonji clan. Considering this an affront and needlessly offensive, Lord Hidetora takes leave of the first castle and heads to Jiro at the second Castle. There he finds himself to be more of a pawn in Jiro’s scheming than anything else. Broken by the betrayal of his sons, Lord Hidetora wanders off with his mercenaries and his fool Kyoami (Pîtâ) with no clear direction. Eventually Tango reappears with provisions to help the wandering party, but when he tells them of Taro’s new decree ‘to kill anyone found helping his father‘, they make a last ditch effort to take Saburo’s castle and fortify themselves there. Saburo’s men happen to be leaving as the group arrives anyways, and it isn’t long before both elder sons come to siege the castle and usurp their father from power through death or submission.

The rest of the film plays out like a season of ‘Game of Thrones’. The siege of the third castle in particular is brutal and impeccably staged. Kurosawa’s use of extras as the armies of Taro and Jiro clash with their father’s skilled warriors is beautifully organized. The chaos and bloodshed feel epic all while Lord Hidetora’s mind is blended, madness ensuing from the shock of all that has come from his abdication of power. The layers of history and karma striking back at the Ichimonji clan from within are glorious and well designed. I won’t divulge all of the details of the plot here, but its just so damn good! The way the story keeps digging at Hidetora’s past and forcing guilt and shame upon him for all that he has done is exemplary- just when you think it can’t get worse, it does! I found everything about this film to be just magnificent. From the score to the pacing, to the scheming and manipulative power moves, and revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan were just perfect in execution!

Seriously, if you enjoy film- this is one of the all time greats and I highly encourage anyone and everyone to give this film a shot. I can’t give this film enough praise, and I honestly need another rewatch to fully indulge in all of the film’s nuances and complexities. It may be a long watch, but it’s more than worth the two hours and forty-two minute runtime.

Final Score: Three sons and countless regrets

*Below is a link to Roger Ebert’s review of “ran” and a video essay by the “Every frame a painting” YouTube channel discussing Akira Kurosawa’s use of movement in his films. Both are simply great and give more depth to the film at hand, enjoy!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985

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Old School Review: “Good Morning” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Good Morning” is a comedic drama following two young boys who wage a war of silence against their parents to persuade them to buy a Television set so they can watch Sumo wrestling. This is the most charming of Ozu’s films that I have seen thus far (three and counting), and still yet the film manages to insert powerful, but subtle, musings on the intricacies of communication and intent. The film is focused on a small Tokyo suburb of families living in close proximity with each other and it cleverly bounces between the language barriers and misunderstandings of a few groups of the residents. First, and most focused on, are the two brothers Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Sitara Koji). On their morning walks to school they and a few other boys from the neighborhood have perfected a game in which they press a finger against each other’s forehead to instigate a fart, which gives way to laughter and affirmation in the group. Funnily enough, one poor kid keeps failing this intestinal test and, well, he begins and ends the film with a walk of shame back to his parents to get a change of pants.

The mothers and wives of the suburb turn a simple misunderstanding into a series of gossip and rumors because their collective dues haven’t been paid accordingly. They all attest to have paid on time, surely, there was a simple issue along the way, but on the other hand the chairwoman, Mrs Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) who collects the dues, has just bought a new washing machine. As the film progresses, Mrs Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake) the mother of Isamu and Minoru, wanted to solve the issue quickly- she seems to be easily put on edge by financial stress– but Mrs Haraguchi hears about the allegation of a new washing machine bought illegally with the dues and confronts Mrs Hayashi (who didn’t even start the rumor) to assure her that this did not happen. Ironically, later when Isamu and Minoru go on a strike of silence to get their parents to buy a TV, they apply this silence to all adults and Mrs Haraguchi assumes this slight was instigated by Mrs Hayashi for the misunderstanding, and quickly informs the other women that Mrs Hayashi holds grudges. This whole incident, by the way, is finally uncovered when Mrs Haraguchi discovers that the dues were given to her mother (Eiko Miyoshi), a comedic old woman who had simply forgotten about receiving them. The grandmother is often found praying, and blatantly complaining about her ingrate of a daughter- yet another Ozu familiarity in the comedy and tragedy of generational family affairs.

The fathers and husbands of the suburb also have their own issues with communication as well. The father of Isamu and Minoru (Chishū Ryū) must mediate and absolve his sons squabbling, after they loudly resist he bellows that “You talk too much for boys your age”. Minoru (the eldest) responds that adults are even worse because adults always engage in pointless niceties like “good morning”, “good evening” and refuse to say exactly what they mean. Which is how Isamu and Minoru come to their silent strike. Their father also has a scene with an older acquaintance in a bar who had found no solace in retirement, only the slow walk toward death. They try to communicate between one’s drunken rambling and the other’s botched attempt to cheer him up- but in doing so realizes his own encroaching retirement. It is this acquaintance, happier with a new job near the end of the film selling electronics, that Isamu and Minoru’s parents buy a TV from to celebrate his new job- to the joy of the silent little warriors.

Final Score: 2 brothers and a few rumors

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Old School Review: “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960)

Written by Hideo Oguni, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryûzô Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Bad Sleep Well” is a scintillating and scathing rebuke of the cut-throat, corrupt, climate that plagued Japan’s post-war corporations. Most of Akira Kurosawa’s films seem to fit into one of two categories, either his films take place in feudal Japan where Samurai and warring city-states engage in bloody battles, or they’re in the modern day Japan of it’s time and focus on the issues of the day, usually placing a heavy hand on the scale of morality. “The Bad Sleep Well” falls in the latter category and pulls a lot of it’s imagery and style from the American Noir crime genre. This time around, Kurosawa plays with a loose adaption of Hamlet set against the shadowy world of corporate espionage.

Though he may be mute for the first half hour, we’re eventually introduced to our lead in Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, Toshirô Mifune as Kôichi Nishi. Mifune enters here with less swagger than Sanjuro or Yojimbo, but trade his usual aloofness for a pure and focused sense of revenge and Mifune’s Nishi transforms into a modern day, clean-shaven, Ronin in a three piece suit. His quest is to avenge his late father, who was forced to jump out of a window of the corporation building he worked in to safeguard his superiors and make it look as though he had committed suicide. The film opens with Nishi’s wedding with the daughter of the vice president of that same company, an unwitting innocent of collateral damage in Nishi’s shadow war against the powerful. In the wedding we’re introduced to the majority of the supporting players of the film as Nishi’s well researched scheme come to bits of fruition. Several potent accusations against leading members of the company (which lures the ravenous media to follow the high profile wedding), leads to the police arriving to take several high ranking board members in for questioning- but there’s also a large wedding cake brought in that’s an exact model of their corporate building, with a rose in the window that Nishi’s father was forced from. A perfect storm of shame and attempts at saving face for the company, which is played for comedic effect in brilliant form by Kurosawa.

It’s a good note to start out on considering the dour realities of the third act. In fact, until about the last twenty minutes of the film, it seems as though Nishi’s carefully calculated plans will have won the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the majority of the film is spent with three figures of the Dairyu company reacting to the scandals erupting around them as they act to diffuse and smother the growing ramifications of their destructive deeds. After the wedding, Tomoko Wada (Kin Sugai) returns from weeks of questioning by the police only to be given orders from his superiors to jump into the nearby volcano and resolve them of his misfortune, but Nishi stops him, and converts him to the side of justice. With Wada’s help, and his covert partner Itakura (Takeshi Katô), the three set forth a plan of attack consisting mostly of using the ghost of Wada to horrify and panic Shirai (Kô Nishimura), the official that held the most sensitive secret information. The next rung up on the corporate ladder belongs to administrative officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura) a more unflappable and calculating underling of vice president Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), the major player of the film. Who just so happens to have Nishi as his ever present assistant, plotting the downfall of the Dairyu executives that organized his father’s killing.

Eventually, Moriyama deduces that the only factor relating to all of their troubles is Furuya, Nishi’s father. Further digging reveals Nishi’s true parentage, and while Nishi captures Moriyama for a time in the ruins of a bombed out factory from World War Two, it is too late- Moriyama had already informed Iwabuchi before being captured. There’s a bit more to the story, but that’s the essential facts of it. Nishi’s found out and killed off-screen before we even know what’s happened, and Iwabuchi restores order to the Dairyu corporation- even if it means the death of his daughter, and his own son’s rejection after discovering the truth. It is a cold reminder that fighting against the machine can be frought with peril, and sometimes, people get caught in the grinding gears. With a pensive and sobering tone, one of Nishi’s last lines after discovering his true lack of progress against the corporation was, “I guess I don’t hate them enough“…

Final Score: A 7-story plummet

*Linked below are two more sources on the subject, the first is the YouTube channel, “Every Frame a Painting”s video analysis of Kurosawa’s use of geometry concerning the blocking of Actors in the film. The second is a piece of well written analysis of the film from the Criterion Collection. Enjoy!

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/409-the-bad-sleep-well-the-higher-depths

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Old School Review: “Floating Weeds” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Floating Weeds” is a remake of Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” made in 1934. This film follows a traveling troupe of actors performing Kabuki theatre around the provinces (“floating weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerent actors). In the opening we’re introduced to the sleepy fishing village that will house the story to come as a few random dock workers muse about the heat of the day and the novelty of the incoming troupe. The troupe arrives by boat and parades into town handing out flyers and talking up the locals as they make their way towards their new temporary home while in town, the theatre. While there are some delightful and fun side stories with several members of the theatre crew, the plot’s main focus is on Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) the leader of the operation, and lead actor. After settling in Komajuro heads off to a Saki bar run by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, his former mistress) to visit and go fishing with Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their grown son who is unaware of his true father’s identity, knowing Komajuro only as “Uncle”.

As you might guess, it isn’t long until Sumiko learns of Komajuro’s ulterior motives in choosing this town for their next round of performances. Which doesn’t go well for Komajuro, as Sumiko’s the jealous type. After she discovers this affront and sees Oyoshi in attendance at one of their shows, she goes to Oyoshi’s Saki bar and aggressively confronts her when she catches Komajuro there playing Go with Kiyoshi one afternoon. Despite Komajuro’s shock and dismay at Sumiko’s transgression he bans her from the Saki bar and breaks it off with her in a powerful argument in the rain. Later on Sumiko offers one of the younger actresses some side money to go and seduce Kiyoshi at his job. While reluctant at first Kayo (Ayako Wakao) eventually accepts without knowing Sumiko’s reasoning for the request. Despite the origins of their relationship, Kiyoshi and Kayo end up falling in love. Shortly after this development Komajuro stumbles upon the two embracing in an alley and finds himself in a conundrum- how can he exercise his authority over Kiyoshi without revealing his true identity to him?

Komajuro had high hopes for his son, Kiyoshi had been saving for college and had plans to support his mother when he could. Before Komajuro can sort out the situation though, Kiyoshi and Kayo elope just as the theatre troupe had begun to fall apart. The financial manager absconded with their funds and several members considered leaving before they become too desperate. Dwindling crowds paired with mismanagement spelled the beginning of the end for the troupe. Eventually Kiyoshi and Kayo head back to town at Kayo’s pressuring- but Kiyoshi and Komajuro clash at the Saki bar when Oyoshi reveals Kiyoshi’s true parentage in an attempt to diffuse the scuffle. Kiyoshi discards Komajuro and leaves in a huff while Komajuro sits in amazement at the series of baffling failures set at his feet. He decides to move on after a cheerful long goodbye to the troupe, ironically riding out of town on a train with Sumiko tending to him- begrudgingly accepting his enemy’s re-established loyalty.

Ozu’s works, of the two I’ve seen so far, have this unique serenity to them. Maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the shots of gentle locations giving the world of his stories a sense of the oft quoted “lived-in” space, or simply that the content of his films are universal to the modern human experience. His films evoke a powerful catharsis felt just as strongly sixty years later. Obviously, not every film will work for every person, but I’m willing to bet that if you gave any of his films a chance you might find yourself quizzically enraptured not just by the drama of common themes across his filmography, but also by the meditative cinematography of his infamous “pillow shots” that melt in-between scenes asking you to pause and digest, relax and breathe. There is something powerful in his depiction of the joy, sadness, humor, and tragedy of everyday life that makes his characters seem familiar and his plots reminiscent of truth.

It wouldn’t be an Ozu film (as I’ve come to notice in my intense search for information on the filmmaker) without a particularly precise composition for every shot in his films. Ozu would typically put the composition of his frame above all else, ignoring the continuity of props and eye-lines for the purity of his images. Which is doubly true for his foray into color filmmaking near the end of his career. His warm pastel coloration for “Floating Weeds” adds another layer of texture to the small seaside village the story takes place in. Between the visible mugginess of the hot summer and the cleansing, humidifying, rain that comes at night and in-between heated arguments, there is a unifying sense of place not only with the “pillow shots” of nature and architecture but in all variables of the filmmaking process. Particularly pleasing was the soundtrack, evocative of popular video game scores (which were probably inspired by films such as this) like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and “Animal Crossing”, it was perfectly set for a small seaside village in the heat of summer. I doubt there could have been a more perfect fit than what we got. The recurring theme gave way to the notion of music belonging to a particular place in its essence, these melodies molded to fit this time and this place. All of these things combine to craft a beautiful and atmospheric stage for Ozu’s story to play out, and it does so with a grace and humility like no other.

While maybe not quite as emotionally impactful as “Tokyo Story”, Ozu’s remake here is a more diverse picture in terms of emotional balance. This is purely my commentary and I can only speak to my experience with the film, but this film held a greater variety of emotional resonance. I was legitimately shocked when Sumiko directly confronted Oyoshi in her Saki bar. The following heated debate in the rain between Sumiko and Komajuro was incendiary and raw. The anger, regret, shock, and disgust thrown at each other was palpable and moving. While earlier, in less fierce scenes, I was tickled by the three bachelors of the troupe and their antics in trying to pair up with the women of the town. This film is a rarity among cinema, as was Ozu himself, and it’s worth your while to experience something new in the pantheon of film, even though this film is sixty years old- it’s still a charming story with universal and relatable characters and themes. Give it a shot!

Final Score: 3 bachelors, 1 lead actor, and 2 mistresses

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Old School Review: “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.

When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.

They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.

The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.

Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.

Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..

*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953

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Old School Review: “Tampopo” (1985)

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!