May 3, 2017

In Tampopo, food is life. It is death, and sex, and everything between. To Western audiences, a film about noodles may seem flippant, and the seriousness with which the gastronomes treat their craft nothing more than comic irony, but the reverence they pay it is sincere and pure. It speaks to deeper human needs, to the urge for perfection, and the need to find meaning through it.

It has been labelled a ‘ramen Western’ (perhaps the only film that will ever wear that badge), and it is easy to see why when Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a Stetson-wearing drifter, rolls into town on his big-rig steed and riles some of the locals. It turns out that Gorô knows all there is to know about ramen, so when Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) begs for his help to turn her struggling ramen bar around, he selflessly agrees to help her.

It may have the feel of the Wild West, but look back at its antecedents and you will see echoes of the Japanese jidaigeki which inspired Sergio Leone and his contemporaries. The motley band of ramen-rō­nin, led by Gorô, that group together to help Tampopo are as diverse and selfless a bunch as those that offer their services in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). Gorô is just another wanderer who, like Toshirô Mifune’s samurai in Yojimbo (1961), is just crafty enough to get by on his own. The reason for Gorô’s benevolence is never really articulated, but some of those around him suggest he does it for love.

Love of food, for one. It is the delicious purpose of Tampopo to uncover the truth of how we treat our food, how we imagine it, shape it, and the joy we take in eating it. So skilfully, Jûzô Itami deconstructs the strict, complex customs associated with eating, particularly when done in a social situation.

READ MORE: David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an uncomplicated film about a type of food that itself looks uncomplicated.

He does this through a series of vignettes that are unrelated to Tampopo’s quest for the perfect ramen. In one, a group of young women are receiving lessons on the etiquette for eating spaghetti. ‘Never make any noise,’ they are told by their instructor. ‘No noise whatsoever,’ she continues, just as a man on the other side of the restaurant begins to slurp his spaghetti noisily, in the same way that we’ve seen patrons of the good ramen bars eat their noodles. In those places, it is a mark of the food’s quality that it is eaten with such gusto, yet during this class, it is seen as an impropriety. The urge to enjoy their food soon overtakes the women, however, including the teacher, and they forget their lesson to tuck into their pasta with enthusiasm.

This dichotomy runs through Tampopo, that on the one hand to create good food can be a challenging, laborious enterprise, but that it can also be liberating when the perfect bowl is formed. In Japan, ramen chefs are notoriously secretive and are reluctant to share their recipes. In trying to create the perfect ramen, Tampopo and Gorô peep into the kitchens of their rivals in an attempt to glean their secrets. But for a long time, it’s of no use. When Tampopo tries, the broth tastes wrong or it is served at the wrong temperature. It is only after hours and hours of toil that she gets closer to the perfect bowl. There is a lesson in this.

With food taking such a prominent place in the film, Jûzô Itami wanted it to look as delicious to the audience as it was supposed to be to its characters. Seiko Ogawa, a ‘food stylist,’ was hired to perfect the aesthetic of the food on camera. The result is a mouth-watering array of dishes, glistening noodle broths dotted with floating bubbles of fat, topped with succulent slices of pork. The attractiveness of the food is tantalising; it lures us in to Tampopo’s story and places in very real terms what is at stake.

Few films have the vitality that Tampopo does. It is, more than anything else, a celebration. It may be light-hearted, but we should take it seriously. The ‘Man in the White Suit,’ an enigmatic gastronomer played by Kôji Yakusho, who appears at certain points in lavish, intimate food-sex digressions, warns us so at the beginning of the film. He does it by appealing to our cinephilic side, telling us (because he speaks directly into the camera) how he can’t stand people who eat their snacks and rustle their packets noisily in the cinema, before nearly throttling a fellow moviegoer doing just that. Some rules should never be broken, especially where food and film are concerned. Tampopo is like this throughout, a serious, happy contradiction.

Country: Japan Language: Japanese Year: 1985 Director: Jûzô Itami  Writer: Jûzô Itami  Starring: Nobuko Miyamoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe Runtime: 114 minutes

More about Alister Burton

An aspiring writer and obsessed film fan putting the two together at worldcinemaguide.com. Favourite film - 2001: A Space Odyssey. Favourite director - Fritz Lang. Guilty pleasure - Hard Target.

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