Tampopo

The long awaited return of a beloved Japanese art-house classic has finally arrived with the new Janus films 4K restoration of Tampopo (1985). 

Long before Japanese Ramen noodle houses started popping up everywhere in North American cities and became the new trendy places to eat authentic noodle soup, many of us only knew about this delicious Japanese staple by way of a hit comedy that took North American and European audiences by storm in the mid-1980s.

Juzo Itami’s humorous and touching “noodle western”, a collision of the Western and Gangster genre tropes, was a break-out hit that took Japanese cinema in fresh new directions and brought international attention to contemporary Japanese culture during an era that was otherwise marked by heavy period dramas from veteran Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa – Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), Kon Ichikawa – The Makioka Sisters (1983), and Shohei Imamura – The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and Black Rain (1989), and lead to his successful follow-up films A Taxing Woman (1987), and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988).

Tampopo was promoted as a high spirited noodle western; a satire on the appreciation and passionate relationship between food and life in Japanese contemporary culture through a montage of culinary vignettes, and observations that range from the gourmet tastes of a bumbling low level office worker at a business luncheon with company executives in a high end restaurant, to the final loving act of a dying mother and wife in a low income apartment cooking one last meal for her family.

Tampopo, which means dandelion in Japanese, is also the name of a widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) who has been left in charge of her late husband’s small roadside Ramen house with her son. When Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a cowboy hat wearing truck driver and Ramen connoisseur stops in for lunch, he gets more than he bargained for. 

After defending the widow and her son in an all-out fist fight with the local clientele who are harassing Tampopo about her awful tasting noodles, Gorô is truck by her passionate plea to teach her how to improve her cooking skills. He decides after recovering from his injuries to take up the challenge and coach her to perfect the art of Ramen. 

But it will not be easy. We are immediately thrown into the Rocky of food films; the Seven Samurai of Ramen noodle survival in a competitive cut-throat business as she goes through Olympic style training to be the best Ramen chef in town. She and Gorô start by scoping out the various local competitors to learn the secret of the most important ingredients that go into making a great Ramen dish. 

Throughout Tampopo’s training, which becomes a little like a reality TV episode of Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Makeover, the film is sprinkled throughout with a collage of brief satirical sketches of unrelated food themed side stories; food as aphrodisiac, food as culture, food as an expression of love, food as tradition and food as ritual.

The two are joined by a number of food experts and masters who help teach Tampopo to understand the nature of a great bowl of traditional Ramen soup and how to serve people to keep them coming back.

Tampopo, a little known Japanese comedy that became a sleeper hit with European and North American art-house cinephiles and would inspire future Japanese film makers like Takeshi Kitano, can now, some 30 years later, be enjoyed by a new generation of filmgoers who will discover the culinary pleasures of this most amusing and unique Japanese ode to food and life.

JP                                       

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