Other than “comedy,” I cannot figure out what to call Juzo Itami’s strange and delightful film Tampopo. The publicity material probably hit it best calling it a ramen western, suggesting perfectly the film’s content as well as its playful tone. Does this help someone who hasn’t seen it? Probably not. It didn’t help me. Though many of my friends loved the film, couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new Criterion Collection edition (out just this week), and told me how great it was, I still had no idea what to expect. I was surprised and delighted minute by minute!
When the film begins, we are in the position of the movie screen in a theater. An audience is entering, taking their seats, getting ready to watch . . . us, I suppose, just as we are watching them. In the front row, a young, attractive couple, reminiscent of a gangster and his gal, have a gourmet meal brought to them. The man looks at us and then speaks to us. We’ve come to see a movie as well, huh? But more important than that? The food. He’s delighted by the food in front of him, and in the ways we consume it. But be careful — he will have no patience with you if you crinkle your wrappers! The tone is set: charm, swagger, passion. But not for money. Not for fame. Simply for food. We swoop to another story . . .
Here, we come to the western bit of “ramen western.” We meet two plains drifters, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki, familiar to fans of Akira Kurosawa’s later films) and his sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe, familiar to more general film audiences but making his debut in The Criterion Collection). They’re riding, seeking for an ideal, in a semi truck. The ideal they seek? The perfect bowl of ramen. As we see them riding along, Gun reads out of a kind of ramen memoir. We see the scene he’s reading play out in front of us, manifesting a religious devotion to appreciating ramen. This just makes Goro and Gun hungry, so they stop aside a rundown ramen shop and enter.
It’s wonderful! They walk in, Goro in his cowboy hat, the men already in the shop look up from their shadows. A pleasant woman runs the shop, so Goro and Gun sit at the bar and order, though they are immediately disappointed because the ramen will not only be less than ideal, it will be terrible. They see all the signs.
Not that they’re going to have much time to eat. While they sit, one of the other men starts hitting on the proprietess. When he goes too far, as we know he will, Goro steps in. When the fight outside is inevitable, he calmly sips his broth at the bar before stepping out to take on the gang. We don’t see the fight. No, rather we watch the proprietess and her son crouched in the doorway, terrified and amazed at the way the night has developed.
The next morning, Goro is a bit beat up, but the proprietess, who happens to be the titular character Tampopo (played by Nobuko Miyamoto, who was Itami’s wife but who shows she got her roles because she’s incredible). She’s found her hero in Goro, but when she asks him how he liked the ramen, she can tell his deflection means he does not approve.
And why should he, she thinks. She’s learned how to make it all on her own. She wants to become great. She asks if he and Gun can teach her, train her.
All of this happens in the first few minutes of the film, which, while retaining its focus on Tampopo’s problems and her desires to make her ramen shop great, also goes freewheeling into other stories. Someone may walk by Tampopo while she’s jogging (the marketing materials and Goro’s hat may call forth the western, but that’s not the only familiar film genre Itami plays with — here we get Rocky), but instead of walking out of the frame, the frame follows that person. This may happen again even to the person we originally started following, but each story stays with food and the various ways one might enjoy it. Or fail to enjoy it. Or enjoy it in extreme ways. The gangster and his gal appear at regular intervals to make us laugh and, if you’re like me, also cringe.
Tampopo is an exceptional, enticing film, funny, filled with texture, and bursting with imagination. It was not what I was expecting. It’s so much better than anything I could have expected!