d. Jūzō Itami / Japan / 1985 / 115 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
I’m not a foodie. I love food, especially good food, and I love trying new food, and I love eating out, and I even like cooking, but I still see food as a form of sustenance rather than pleasure. And so it’ll probably come as no surprise that I’ve never really been a massive fan of food films or films about restaurants (with a few exceptions, as always).
Jūzō Itami’s Tampopo is very much about food, ramen to be precise, with a central narrative strand in which a pair of wandering strangers arrive at a ramshackle noodle hut owned by a single mother, and set about helping her to transform it into a top class culinary establishment. Just about every single frame of Tampopo concerns itself with food: how to cook it, how to eat it, how to use it for seduction.
Almost as an afterthought, this film also finds time to present itself as a dark comedy, and has often been referred to as the first ever Japanese Noodle Western. But unlike the older strain of Spaghetti Westerns, or more recent Asian variations (such as Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng’s magnificently stylish Pad Thai Western, Tears of the Black Tiger), Tampopo‘s Western genre influence is less visual and spatial, and more subtle and thematic.
Most obviously, it operates along a Fordian plot norm in which a woman in distress encounters a pair of wandering male(s), who set about ‘rescuing’ the woman before riding off into the sunset. But it also finds space to provide subtle riffs on Western iconography, from its recurring musical themes to Tsutomu Yamazaki’s hat, and from the low-shot duel, to the interminable, almost homoerotic fight scenes.
But in spite of its playful approach to Western tropes, and its blithe obsession with food, Tampopo is a bewildering film in many ways, not all of which are necessarily good. The whimsical to-ing and fro-ing is often just too clever – or too silly – for its own good, and Itami’s scattershot approach to the tangential narratives, whilst occasionally invigorating, seems far too restless and unfocused to provide a properly enjoyable viewing experience.
That said, it did leave me with a serious craving for proper ramen!
And just because it’s so much fun, here is the best scene in Tampopo (which, funnily enough, has little or nothing to do with the central plot):