Written & Directed by Juzo Itami
Food has been the subject of many films over the century. Sometimes, it is a central part of the story, like in Babbette’s Feast or Ratatouille, or just part of memorable scenes like Matilda or Hook. When a filmmaker gets food right in their work, they can activate your senses, taking images on a screen and turning them into a hunger for the dishes on display. Tampopo does this while remaining a nearly uncategorizable film. It’s a comedy and a drama and a strange series of vignettes about people’s love of food stuffed in around the edges.
Goro is a truck driver who, with his partner Gun (Ken Watanabe), stop one rainy night for a meal at a small ramen shop. The place is operated by Tampopo, a widow whose husband used to run the restaurant. She has cobbled a ramen recipe that is subpar, and Goro decides to invest his time in helping her become something fantastic. Goro takes Tampopo on a culinary journey exploring the ramen in her own neighborhood, exploring broth and noodles and all its components. Inbetween, we get brief side stories of people with food that explore the comedy and drama surrounding gastronomy.
Tampopo is a delightful light fantasy, existing in a world where there is no real menace or villains. It reminded me of Jacques Tati or Wes Anderson’s films, pleasant and comedic while still speaking some truth. Couched inside this movie about food is a story about a love of all things creative, especially movies. The film opens with a gangster, his girl, and three flunkies taking a seat in the front of a movie theater. The trio of henchmen set up a table complete with a meal and flute of wine. The gangster speaks directly to the audience about food and movies, pointedly saying that when we die, we view our last film, as our life flashes before our eyes.
Goro is introduced as Yojimbo, or Clint Eastwood styled character. He’s calm under pressure and never lets an antagonist’s jibes break him. Throughout the film, you have references to Western cinema in the form of the cowboy Western, gangster movies, screwball comedies, romance, sports films, and even erotica. Writer-director Juzo Itami has composed a meal for the eyes, a mixing of unlikely but familiar ingredients to make a sumptuous dish that you’d have a hard time not enjoying.
The side stories act as the additional ingredients to the broth of the main story. We get the story of a young salaryman out for lunch with the veteran members of his firm. Not wanting to be seen as uncultured, they refrain from ordering until the senior man in the group places his own. Then they all copy precisely what he’s getting until we get to this young salaryman who reveals the depth of his culinary knowledge by ordering a complex tapestry of dishes and drink.
There’s another hilarious bit where an elderly woman slips into her corner store and goes about poking her fingers in everything from peaches to cheese to bread. There’s no explanation for this, but the manager catches onto her bizarre fetish and begins pursuing her around the store. In yet another story, a man rushes home to find his wife on her death bed. Unable to bear the idea of raising their three children on his own, he shouts at her to “fix dinner.” She rises and, with her dying breath, prepares a meal for her family one last time. It’s morbidly, funny and heartbreaking.
Throughout Tampopo, as I have in this review, you will think of other great films and filmmakers. I think this film influenced the work of Roy Anderson and was, in turn, influenced by Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic takes on the bourgeoise. Yet, for all the blatant references, Tampopo stands on its own as such an original blend of tropes and elements. This is a movie far and away above the pack in 1985, a reminder of how much fantastic cinema exists outside of the narrow border of the United States.