One a Week: TAMPOPO
This is One a Week, where I do a brief but deep dive into a movie I love, and, if you give it a shot, I think you might love it too.
Let’s cut back to the mid-80s, a half empty movie theater in Tokyo, Japan. We see a suave handsome young man in a fedora and an impeccable white three-piece suit accompanied by a beautiful, ethereal woman and three “assistants”, all of them in white. They set a small table with gourmet meats, cheese, wine— and as one of the goons pours his boss champagne, the man in the fedora looks straight into the camera and says “Oh? You’re at the movies too. What are YOU eating?” He’s talking to us, of course.
He then explodes on a moviegoer and threatens to murder him if he keeps making noises with a bag of chips during the movie that’s about to start. You see, our sharply dressed man hates nothing more than interruptions during movies. He reminds us of that old cliché of how when we die, our whole life flashes in front of our eyes— like a movie. “I would hate to be interrupted at that point. Wouldn’t you?”, he tells us.
And so, with this somewhat dated, fourth-wall-breaking, a bit over-the-top yet profoundly metaphysical disclaimer, our movie begins.
Shot in 1985 by Japanese director Juzo Itami, Tampopo is often affectionately referred to as a “Ramen Western”, in which cowboy-hat-wearing truck driver, Goro, and his sidekick Gun ride into town in a literally bull-horned semi instead of a horse; stop at a noodle shop instead of a saloon; and later help the recently widowed shop owner, Tampopo, in her quest to make the perfect bowl of ramen in order to save her shop instead of— you know— teaching her how to shoot from the hip. So, sure, it’s a Ramen Western. But the truth is, just like a bowl of ramen is much more than just a “noodle soup”, Tampopo is much more than just Sergio Leone meets Japanese cuisine.
On its bubbling, brothy surface, Tampopo is a narrative comedy with interstitial vignettes, all of which revolves around food— how it’s prepared and consumed; created and enjoyed; how it relates to life and death, bliss and pain, love and sex. Weird sex. I’m talking, “live prawns in a glass bowl full of cognac tickling your tummy” weird sex. The film is also homage to cinema itself, respectfully borrowing from a diverse roster of classics such as Chaplin’s The Kid, Stallone’s Rocky, George Steven’s Shane. Its humor is at times subtly satirical, at times slap-sticky; it shifts from light-hearted and playfully absurd to somewhat dark and absurdly grotesque. It has subtle hints of a romantic comedy, erotic melodrama and there are even sequences where our protagonist spies on the competition with the help of some co-conspirators. The whole thing turns into an Ocean’s 11-style culinary heist.
I know what you’re probably thinking. Theoretically, there’s no way this film works. It sounds like something a psychotic 4 year old with very negligent parents would make for dinner.
And yet, it does. The structure of the film is laid out like a menu of thematically contrasting yet tonally complementing courses. It blends American and European cinematic tropes against a modern-day Japanese socio-cultural backdrop, managing to transcend genre and elevate the medium to what I can only describe as a very funny, heart-felt, multi-sensory cinematic experience which uses sight and sound cleverly to titillate our additional senses of touch, smell and taste effectively— which is one of the things that makes this film so unique.
There are plenty of examples of movies evoking our other senses. (And no, I’m not talking about “Smell-O-Vision”: a thankfully short-lived experiment from the late 50’s and early 60’s which filmmakers used to pump various scents through the air conditioning ducts in a movie theater, most notably in – and, I am not making this up–the mystery-comedy, Scent of Mystery, starring Denholm Elliot, Liz Taylor and Peter Lorre. It turned out, nobody really wanted to know what Peter Lorre smelled like.) Think about how the billows of orange smoke, the scorching jungle and Robert Duvall’s words in Apocalypse Now burn your nostrils with “the smell of napalm in the morning”. Or how Remy’s taste experience is conveyed visually when he combines strawberry and cheese in Ratatouille; and later, in the same film, when the menacing food-critic Anton Ego has that final taste and is momentarily transported to that heart-warming memory in his childhood: the taste of unconditional love.
In one of Tampopo’s silent-movie-style tangential side stories, we see a quirky elderly woman in a supermarket obsessed with pressing her fingers into fresh food. She sticks her fingers into a peach until it squirts, touches a roll of Camembert compulsively with her thumbs like it’s the latest iPhone and squeezes pastry on a table until the storeowner— who’s been chasing her all along— manages to catch up with her and slap her hand with a fly swatter. For that brief, whimsical sequence, our hands are the old lady’s hands. In another part of the movie, a man with a crippling toothache has an abscess drained at the dentist, which—accompanied with a loud hiss— unleashes a stink so horrifying that it makes me want to open a window every time I see it. In another scene, the slurping of noodles is accentuated with cartoonish whistling sounds to convey texture. And then there’s the egg-yolk scene. What can I say about the egg-yolk scene? Other than it’s perhaps one of the most sensuous, spine-tingling images ever committed to film. And don’t watch it with your kids. Or your parents. No matter how cool they are.
Tampopo is a love letter to food; a love letter to cinema; a love letter to the appreciation of both food and cinema and to the idea of appreciation itself. It is a testament to how creating and enjoying what is created can feed off each other throughout the lineage of great cinema. About how both the things we dedicate our selves to, as well as the things we derive pleasure from define, to a great extent, who we are— which I think is something worth pondering in an age where taste in art and entertainment has never felt more homogenized.
By showing us his across-the-board cinematic influences in his work (and yes, directors have been doing this long before Tarantino) Itami is telling us that, at some point, he too was simply a fan of movies. And— just as the eponymous main character in this story borrows, learns and steals from various sources in order to create the perfect bowl of ramen— the director of Tampopo serves up this unique treat of a film for us to enjoy and perhaps feel inspired to create something we love from the things we love. Or at least appreciate life with more curious taste before we die and it— like a movie— flashes in front of our eyes.
PS: There’s a Making Of Documentary on YouTube narrated by Itami himself in which you get a sense of how much love went into producing the film. The joy, enthusiasm and commitment from everyone involved in front and behind the camera are palpable. It’s the absolute opposite of that Apocalypse Now documentary, Hearts of Darkness, where at some point it is revealed that Martin Sheen had a (possibly cocaine-induced) heart-attack during the film (he was 36), and then we hear a recording of Coppola telling someone “If Marty dies, I want to hear that everything’s okay until I say he’s dead. You got it?”
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