Twenty years ago, a friend called and said, “There’s a movie playing at Coolidge Corner. It’s a noodle western and you have to see it with me.” What choice did I have? The set-up was too intriguing. I loved westerns. I loved noodles. And within the first ten minutes, I loved Tampopo.
I came unfashionably late to the Tampopo party—about a dozen years after its initial release. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even the first food-focused film I saw. Most likely that would have been 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Or perhaps it was 1992’s Like Water for Chocolate. But more than Willy Wonka or Like Water for Chocolate or Eat Drink Man Woman or Babette’s Feast or Big Night—all wonderful films in their own rights—Tampopo affected me deeply, and continues to this day to inform my love of food and film more than any other food-focused movie ever has.
Has there ever been a film about food that so thoroughly has the courage of its convictions? A film that throws caution to the wind and revels in genre-bending and sex and the childish joy of slurping spaghetti? A film that tackles love, death, grief, toothache, and oenophilic vagabonds with such relish and respect? Great food movies are a challenge: Cooking and eating demand all the senses; to distill that sensory amalgamation into an experience solely of sight and sound is no easy feat. Where many have failed, Tampopo succeeded.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself. A brief synopsis is in order, even if writer-director Juzo Itami’s wildly inventive 1985 masterwork defies summarization. Here’s an attempt. Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), our heroine, is a widower and mother of a young, bullied son. She operates a ramen shop of middling to low quality. Both she and the shop seem stuck in a rut, lacking confidence and customers, respectively. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), our truck-driving hero, is a mysterious stranger from out of town, complete with cowboy hat. He and his sidekick, Gun (a young Ken Watanabe), decide to teach Tampopo how to make ramen of the highest quality. “They’ve got sincerity but they lack guts,” Goro says of her noodles. “Frankly, they’re bad,” says Gun. A team is summarily assembled, bent on success for Tampopo: a flashy, second-rate tough guy; a chauffeur-cum-renowned chef (turtle lovers, beware); the leader of a band of gourmet gypsy-vagabonds who dine on only the best food and wine found in the back alleys and trash bins of five-star eateries throughout town. Espionage, dumpster diving, confronting the competition—this ragtag band of consultants leaves no stone unturned in its great ramen quest.
This main thread is interrupted from time to time—usually with delightful results—by vignettes, only some of which intersect with our main characters. We encounter an old woman obsessed with squeezing soft cheese and ripe peaches in a grocery store late at night; a lowly business intern with impeccable taste but less knowledge of proper Japanese business etiquette; a sick wife who prepares one last wok of fried rice before dropping dead in front of her family at the dining table. A yakuza and his moll return with more frequency, contributing scenes of food-based eroticism and pure, raw emotion that are striking to behold. (Dear Penthouse: I never knew the things I could do with an egg yolk and a live shrimp until….)
I’ll be honest. I think the main story line works the best. It's the most intriguing, and part of me longs for the movie to stay with these wonderful characters and their journey—part My Fair Lady, part Rocky, part Pale Rider, part ramen-shop documentary. These scenes are the most entertaining, heart-warming, and cohesive. We have so much invested in the characters, and, certainly, in the outcome, that I'd gladly spend the entire film immersed in their world. But Itami didn’t want to focus his artistry there and there alone. He didn’t want to make that movie. He wanted to make this movie. And he made it work. It’s a mash-up, to be sure—a romp exploring and exposing how food impacts every facet of our lives: joy, love, duty, death, innocence, gluttony, honor, sexuality, pride. Tampopo is a morality tale disguised within a film that can't be categorized—a round peg in a subpolygonal hole. With a wink and a nod, the film revels in its own soulful absurdity. It's impossible to resist.
Consider this exchange from early on. As Goro drives the truck through a torrential rain storm, Gun reads aloud a scene from a novel concerning an old man teaching a young boy the proper way to eat a bowl of ramen.
Old man: First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.
Young man: What for?
Old man: To express affection.
Young man: I see.
Old man: Then poke the pork.
Young man: Eat the pork first?
Old man: No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon.’
This is one of the few films to truly convey the multifold sensory experience that is enjoying a meal. It caresses the surface of food fetishism and food obsession. It fulfills some of our most basic needs—sustenance, happiness, human connection. And it delights in the sensuality of feeding and being fed. See you soon, Tampopo. See you soon.
Tampopo will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection on April 25.