The Most Beautiful Fraud: Tampopo

Tampopo was a first for me in a lot of ways:  not only the first movie I’d seen by Juzo Itami, but the first Japanese comedy I’d ever seen, and one of the first Japanese films I’d seen at all outside of Akira Kurosawa and a few samurai period pieces.  I saw it when it was first released in the U.S. on VHS during my stint at a chain video rental store right after I left high school, and it made a huge impact on me:  I recommended it endlessly, even to customers who couldn’t have cared less about anything with subtitles.

I became a big fan of Itami’s work later on, and revisited Tampopo a number of times after that, but when it came to the Siskel Center last week in a splendid new 4k restoration, I probably hadn’t seen it in over a decade.  I also had never seen it on a big screen, so I was very excited, and the restoration didn’t disappoint:  not only was it visually rich and fine, with the pastels and bright colors dancing across the screen with a vividness I’d never imagined before, but the sound had also been finely reworked, showing off the brilliant and incredibly effective editing that gives every scene a little extra frisson and every punchline an audible pop.

Tampopo is the story of widow Nobuko Miyamoto (played with grace and humor by Itami’s wife), who tries to take care of her put-upon son while operating a small-time ramen shop.  One rainy night, a pair of long-haul truckers — haggard Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki, doing the goofiest John Wayne imitation this side of Big Trouble in Little China) and lean Gun (an impossibly young-looking Ken Watanabe)  stop in for a bowl, and, as veterans of innumerable roadside ramen shops, are none too impressed with her fare; she begs them to help her turn the joint into the best in the country.  (To give you an idea how long ago it was that I first saw the movie, back then, every instance of the word “ramen” was rendered in the subtitles as “noodle soup”.)  After some convincing, they decide to help, and she becomes a lean, mean, culinary machine dedicated to bringing in business by the truckload.

The set-up couldn’t be simpler, but the way the story unfolds contains a shocking amount of depth, character, humor, pathos, and simple sweetness that belies its basic set-up.  In fact, watching it again, one of the things that surprised me the most about Tampopo is how perfectly the story is structured:  it delivers its premise right away, follows a solid pattern while both hitting all of the necessary plot beats and providing a few surprises, and wraps up with the perfect kind of ending, one that seems inevitable but never predictable.  Itami switches things up a bit by throwing in a lot of little digressions from the main story, but they’re expertly executed:  they start out light while building to a more dramatic conclusion, they add elements of humor and suspense to the main plot, and they end just in time to avoid overstaying their welcome.  It’s astonishingly efficient storytelling.

One of these diversions involves Koji Yausho as an elegant white-suited yakuza mobster who is dedicated to showing his beautiful lover only the finest things in life, and that includes food:  it is this section, and not the rather chaste quasi-romance between Goro and the main characters,  that gives Tampopo its reputation as an erotic classic as well as a superb comedy.  These scenes pull off a delicate balancing act, because they never become overtly sexualized (although they come surprisingly close) while still establishing the inextricable link between food and sex that informs so much of the rest of the plot.  A fantastic little throwaway scene involving a green office assistant who shames his corporate bosses with his encyclopedic knowledge of haute cuisine is still hilariously right on, and a bit about a harried housewife being forced by domestic chores to postpone her own death is blackly hilarious (and a glimpse forward to the darker tone Itami would take in later years).

One of the things that had worried me about revisiting Tampopo is how it would hold up in the era of more feminist awareness in film; while it is a movie that stars a female lead, she is still largely enabled by male actors, and it is certainly a product of its time and place.  But having watched it with my very feminist partner, it struck me as being a lot stronger than just a rare woman’s movie:  the humor is never at Tampopo’s expense, she is shown as being intelligent and capable (and, crucially, having the agency to make all the important decisions, including the one to seek Gun and Goro’s help in the first place), and it doesn’t end with the trite romantic conclusion that a lesser film probably would have handed us.  It’s not an expressly political film, but it has some things to say about traditional gender roles that Itami obviously intended us to hear.

Mostly, though, Tampopo is now what it was then:  a very charming, very funny, very well-made comedy that celebrates through its every sensory output the glories of food.  It shows us the arts of cooking and dining through many lenses, from gender and class to finance and sexuality, to the sheer sensual pleasure of it all, and it does it supremely well.  Eating is depicted as a pleasure, a vice, a weakness, a skill, a chore, a source of pride, and an expression of shame — and all of these are shown as being simultaneously true while never getting in each other’s way.  It’s not only a classic film in its own right, but one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of eating.  Once we’d seen it, we headed out into the snowy Chicago night towards Chinatown, to make our own pilgrimage to a ramen shop; what else could we possibly have done?

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