Writer-director Juzo Itami’s “ramen western” Tampopo cannily conflates the unassuming pleasures obtained from consuming comfort foods and genre filmmaking alike. Building on the sturdy narrative framework provided by archetypal American westerns like Shane, Itami frees himself up to spin his story off into odder tangents, much as a ramen chef can spice up a basic broth with any number of exotic ingredients. At bottom, Itami’s film is a zesty, albeit wholesomely satisfying, concoction concerned with the virtues of community and cooperation. Nonetheless, Tampopo also explores some darker regions in a number of vignettes that illuminate the often surreal intersections of sex, death, and other human appetites.
The film announces the nested-Russian-doll complexity of its storyline from its cold open on a yakuza in a white suit (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) enjoying a night out at the movies. The gangster saunters up to the extreme foreground of the shot, insouciantly shattering the fourth wall by asking viewers what they’re snacking on, before settling in for a movie that merges with the one we’re watching. This film starts with two truck drivers, Goro (Tsutomu Yawazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe), barreling through the rain-drenched night while the opening credits roll. Gun reads aloud from a book, which Tampopo brings to life as a hilariously mock-solemn discussion between a ramen master (Ryutaro Otomo) and his acolyte (Watanabe) on the proper way to eat a bowl of ramen: a ridiculously elaborate ritual that includes apologizing to the pork you’re about to consume. Realizing Gun’s story has made them hungry, the truckers decide to stop at a ramshackle ramen shop run by dowdy widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).
Now the story seemingly settles into a groove, following Tampopo on her single-minded quest to concoct the perfect bowl of ramen, craftily acquiring the necessary knowledge and skill sets, assisted by an expanding roster of culinary confederates. These sequences smartly toy with the conventions of the sensei-disciple relationship depicted in countless martial-arts films, foregrounding Tampopo’s burgeoning self-confidence and resilience, and even throwing in an amusing nod to Rocky for good measure. Still, every so often, Itami pulls a page from Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty playbook, panning the camera away from the actors in the main storyline to track background characters into a loosely related series of vignettes. These episodes not only allow Itami to expand the thematic scope of his film, they also reveal an antiauthoritarian streak in the filmmaker’s sensibility that acts as a welcome counterweight to his larger narrative’s bittersweet optimism.
Itami’s anarchic verve is nowhere better illustrated than in the scene set in an elegant restaurant that contrasts a group of young women receiving stern instruction not to make a sound while eating a plate of spaghetti with the rude and lusty noodle-slurping of another patron. Like the best of Buñuel, this sequence ironically inverts the social norm—in Japan, slurping your food is considered an appropriate sign of appreciation—as a means of demolishing notions of propriety and good taste. A darker, more tragicomic mood envelops a later vignette in which a salary man races home to attend to his ailing housewife, who’s just been diagnosed as being overworked to death. Without missing a beat, the husband prescribes his own variety of no-rest cure—“Go make dinner!”—and with foreseeable results.
By far the most outrageous episode finds the gangster in white and his lover embroiled in an act of what Itami calls the “pornography of the edible” in the production diary that’s included as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray. Food-play of the 9 ½ Weeks sort is one thing, but watching this couple orally swap an egg yolk six or seven times definitely borders on the obscene—and yet that image is easily capped when the yolk inevitable bursts, dribbling yellow spurts all down the woman’s chin and chic clothes. This scene is sardonically mirrored in the film’s final shot: a protracted zoom-in on a contentedly breastfeeding baby, a cheeky callback to that primordial era when sex and sustenance seemed like they would never be dissevered.
Criterion’s new 4K transfer of Tampopo is a marked improvement over the Fox Lorber DVD. The film looks somewhat darker, with more deeply saturated colors, beefed-up contrast levels, and better-rendered flesh tones. Fine details of costume and décor really pop, and the healthy grain levels appear properly cinematic. Masaki Tamura’s savory cinematography verges at times on food porn (in one scene quite literally so), and every tantalizing close-up of those steaming bowls will make you want to plunge a pair of chopsticks into your screen. The PCM mono mix is sturdy. Composer Kunohiko Murai, renowned for his work on the Lone Wolf and Cub films, contributes a bouncy score replete with generic western themes, and even a bit of ragtime piano. The soundtrack also mixes in some evocative classical pieces like the extract from Liszt’s "Les Préludes" that plays over the bittersweet finale.
The excellent making-of documentary, assembled and narrated by Juzo Itami, is the next best thing to a commentary track. There's plenty of de rigueur behind-the-scenes footage, but also some illuminating comparisons of the finished film to the shooting script, and an extended demonstration of timing a piece of classical music to match on-screen events. Actress Nobuko Miyamoto discusses playing the title role in the film, and collaborating with Itami, who was also her husband. Seiko Ogawa talks about her experiences preparing most of the food in Tampopo, getting along with the hands-on Itami, and how the film's depiction of food brings with it an inevitable sense of nostalgia for Japanese viewers of a certain age.
"The Perfect Bowl" is unadulterated foodie bait, with Japanese and American ramen vendors rhapsodizing about their initial exposure to the film and how it influenced their food philosophies. Zhou and Ramos's video essay cribs its definition of the amateur from author Michael Chabon, applies it to various characters in the film, and outlines some key distinctions between the artist and the craftsperson. Itami's debut short film, 1962's Rubber Band Pistol, is a French New Wave-indebted jape that tags along with a band of disaffected twentysomethings over a few misspent days of woolgathering and tinkering with the titular toy. The Blu-ray's foldout booklet reproduces the movie poster on one side and offers an astute essay from food and culture writer Willy Blackmore on the politics of food in Tampopo on the other.
Juzo Itami’s "ramen western" Tampopo is a zesty concoction that investigates the often surreal intersections of sex, death, and other human appetites.