Tampopo is a ten-course meal of visual intensity. Watching it was like being at a feast table with a wide variety of friends and relatives. Some tell funny stories and some tell scary stories. A few are boring and others are disgusting. And ten courses goes on, and on, and on. Too much for me to fully take in, I left feeling astonished, grateful, and a little bit sick.
Directed by Juzo Itami, this cinematic feast is an homage to master film “chefs” who have come before him, including (I insist) Frederico Fellini. My initial reaction was that the film felt like a mashup of Juliet of The Spirits and Pulp Fiction. Given that Tampopo came out in 1985, Quentin Tarantino was likely influenced by Itami not the other way around, but I can’t help conflating them in my mind.
From Fellini, Itami borrows the spice of absurdity and confusion to create Tampopo. Some rough-and-tumble truckers stop at a widow’s ramen shop and get bad food. That should be the end of it. Instead, Itami, who also wrote the screenplay, begins to introduce a crazy variety of characters:
- The handsome, powerful Man in The White Suit
- The band of filthy, homeless foodies (before there was any such thing as a “foodie”)
- The oddly competent, drunkard contractor Pisken
- The chauffeur and noodle specialist
- The disabled, embarrassing junior businessman who knows precisely how to order French food
- The spaghetti slurping fat, white, businessman
Itami starts threading together a dozen, if not more, almost completely disconnected stories. The only link between them is that they involve an obsession-level preoccupation with food, and as a compulsory side effect, sex and violence.
The widow, Tampopo, and her quest to make the perfect ramen is the central story. Surrounding her various non-linear forays to learn the secret of the perfect ramen come other stories and characters that never touch hers. She is shepherded into the world of perfect ramen by Gorō, the older trucker with a rough cowboy exterior, and a huge set of bull’s horns adorning his rig. He leads Tampopo on the quest to borrow a ramen Sensei, steal the perfect broth recipe, and trick the perfect noodles out from under the nose of their maker.
Just when it seems like it’s getting boring, something completely unexpected happens and you have to laugh.
Then, in opposition to the simple, failing ramen shop, there is the world of the fancy restaurant. Here, polished young Japanese women are instructed to eat spaghetti silently and carefully. Unfortunately, across the open courtyard, a fat white man sucks it down noisily. Guess which method they end up choosing?
Upstairs in a private dining room, the most-awkward-ever ordering scene is played out. In yet another scene jump, a man on a train whose mouth is so painful that he can’t eat receives a delivery of three delicious containers of dim sum from a lovely young girl. The speeding train footage is played at high speed, representing a journey that can’t come too soon but seems to take forever because of the pain. His trip takes him towards a dental extraction sequence that my husband (thankfully) shielded my eyes from.
Meanwhile, the lovers, Man in White Suit and his girlfriend, appear throughout the film but not in any narrative sequence. Sometimes they are watching a movie attended by flunkies, bullying other movie goers not to be noisy and interrupt by eating potato chips. In other scenes, they have holed up in a hotel room doing repulsive things to each other with food (I’m going to cringe every time I ever see giant shrimp again). They are in the film to represent the lust for life…and just plain lust…associated with food.
For this prudish girl with a vanilla sexuality and unadventurous food tendencies, the movie bordered on horror. There were a lot of spitting angry men shouting at the camera. People constantly ate things they shouldn’t, or didn’t eat things they should. For example, the movie includes the preparation of a live soft-shelled turtle. It is killed on screen. Ugh. The erotic passing of an egg yolk from mouth-to-mouth by the lovers. And a two-men-beating-the-crap-out-of-each-other-in-the-tall-summer-grass sequence that feels like it will never end.
Despite the gross-outs, the annoyingly noisy lady behind us had a good point when she loudly whispered, “Just when it seems like it’s getting boring, something completely unexpected happens and you have to laugh.” She was right. I also laughed a lot. And it wasn’t all of the UNCOMFORTABLE. MUST. LAUGH variety either.
I know I’m not recommending the film by starting with the shock-value parts of it, but there is a lot of that. I believe the movie intends to surprise and disturb the viewer with both the constant story-switching format and the content. What’s being offered is a feast, yes, but not the wine-and-food-pairing variety. Much more pot luck, with entrees and side dishes arriving with latecomers.
What I loved about the film was that though it was shocking-surprising, it could also be gentle-surprising, sweet-surprising, heroic-surprising. One of my favorite scenes is when a band of local boys arrives at Tampopo’s ramen shop with an enormously oversized toolbox. It opens to reveal makeup brushes and enough products to give a Macy’s cosmetic counter performance anxiety. Our hero has developed warm-fuzzy feelings for the widow, Tampopo, and they pull him away from the shop while they give her a makeover.
I had a sinking feeling, imagining her natural beauty and fresh face becoming the mask of a drag queen. However, when the moment for the big reveal comes: Tampopo is unchanged. A little extra eyeliner and that quintessentially 80’s soft filter leave her materially the same – in Gorō’s eyes. In the reality depicted a few moments later, we see that her hair is a bit spunky and her lipstick is definitely a darker red. It goes with her black-with-red-polka-dotted, shoulder-padded dress.
As a kid of the 80’s, I laughed at the fashion of the film. Hot pink eye shadow, lace, and bows to make you cringe! Oh, the shoulder pads! My, the weird perms! There’s much to enjoy here in terms of filmmaking, story, and character, but most of all there is the continual return to a heretical humor about food, like the sign on this little boy in the park, which reads:
There’s much to enjoy here in terms of filmmaking, story, and character, but most of all there is the continual return to a heretical humor about food, like the scene of this little boy in the park, which reads:
I only eat natural food, don’t give me sweets or snacks.