Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Happy Birthday to ME (AND SUNNY D!!!)

It's sad when my birthday gift to myself is FORCING myself to leave work after "only" working a 10 hour day instead of my typical 12.  



Director: Juzo Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe

“So, you’re watching a movie too?  What are you eating?”

A guilty pleasure show for both me and my husband is Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network.  We call it food porn because everything looks so damn good, and it makes both of us really hungry for really greasy food.  But when it comes to true food porn, I don’t think anything can really surpass Tampopo, a film that is quite possibly the best foodie movie I’ve ever seen.  A little bit of everything and never taking itself terribly seriously, Tampopo is nothing if not exuberant about the joy of eating.

Tampopo (Miyamoto) is a widowed young mother running the noodle shop her husband left her, but not running it very well.  Toro (Yamazaki) is a truck driver who wears fedoras and is accompanied by sidekick Gun (a young Watanabe).  When Toro and Gun stop by Tampopo’s place, taste her mediocre noodles, save her son from bullies, and beat up the bad guys infesting her restaurant, she begs them to stay to teach her, train her, and help her become the best ramen noodle shop around.

This central story, while not the only focus of the film, is a fascinating journey of doing one thing, and doing it well.  I can only think of the word “joy” to describe watching Tampopo transform her noodle shop.  It’s such a simple premise, but it works.  Slowly, step by step, Goro guides Tampopo through the process of becoming a great chef.  It’s just fun, watching them find a broth expert, then a noodle expert, then an interior design expert.  Everything gets a makeover, including Tampopo herself, and it gives the movie focus, and if there is some skewering of Japanese and American customs along the way, so much the better.  It’s honestly difficult to tell at certain points if Tampopo is presenting its story as tongue-in-cheek, or if it really is just blushingly sincere, and quite frankly, the film can be read either way.  For me personally, however, despite my rampant cynicism in other areas of my life, I choose to read Tampopo’s tale as one of straightforward zeal.  When Tampopo triumphantly serves her excellent ramen at the end of the film, the story has been building so subtly but so insistently that I find myself wanting to stand up and cheer.  Over a bowl of noodles.  There is nothing cynical, to me, in her final success, and I am with her every step of the way.

And yet, if that’s all you think Tampopo is, you’re missing out.  The above is merely the main storyline, the connective thread from start to finish, but there’s so much more here.  There are tangential vignettes, comedy spoofs, and montage sequences that hold everything together, creating some bizarrely humorous yet incredibly endearing whole.  A group of Japanese women are taking lessons on how to eat Italian spaghetti and fail miserably at not slurping the noodles.  A young businessman thoroughly outclasses his older colleagues at French restaurant.  A woman on her death bed rises in order to prepare dinner for her family (it sounds sad, but it’s actually laugh out loud funny, especially when Dad tells the kids to “eat it while it’s still hot!” right after Mom dropped dead).  And then there is piece de resistance, the actual food porn.  I wasn’t kidding with my opening; there is a couple dressed in white that is continually cut back to that include food thoroughly in their love play.  Seriously, this part of Tampopo is food porn.  But it’s never too serious or too melodramatic or even too vulgar; all these odd little asides from the main story help to create a mood of charm and whimsy, that key atmosphere of irreverent and joyous fun that makes Tampopo so special. 

Tampopo runs fast and thick with movie references, ranging from the obvious (a Rocky training session even involving the gray sweat suit) to the more subtle (I swear, when a “vagabond” makes a rice omelet for Tampopo’s son, it’s meant to mimic Charlie Chaplin).  Not what you were expecting from a movie about food?  Me neither, but that’s one of the wonderful things about Tampopo.  Goro wears a fedora nearly identical to Indiana Jones’, and in a dream sequence, Tampopo herself is in full-on American Western garb as the film takes on a decidedly “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” John Ford feeling.  The Western themes, in particular, are laced throughout the entire film and are easily the most recognizable to American audiences.  So what if, ten minutes later from the aforementioned dream sequence, Tampopo then swings wildly away by referencing the heartbreaking final scene from Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp?  Don’t overthink it.  Tampopo is all about food and reverence for food, but only slightly below food is a reverence for cinema. 

All of this makes Tampopo wonderful, but what really sets it over the edge is how the film becomes sneakily emotional in its climax.  Yes, there are hints of a romance between Tampopo and Goro throughout the film, but in the finale, when she finally reopens her wonderful new shop and serves her wonderful new ramen to hordes of people who appear as if from nowhere, the movie becomes sadly wistful.  Goro gazes at Tampopo and sees… what?  Regret?  Pride?  A lost love?  A job well done?  The answer is all of these things, but this is a scene thick with unsaid emotion.  There was definitely a lump in my throat and my eyes got a little misty.

Again, all in a movie about noodles.

With a soundtrack taken mostly from Mahler’s First Symphony (an interesting East-meets-West comment right there) that is as whimsical yet powerful as the film itself, you really can’t go wrong with Tampopo.  It is a joyous celebration of food, life, and cinema, all blended together, never getting too serious, but getting just serious enough.  My only warning is that you will be absolutely dying for a bowl of good quality ramen by the end of the film.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10


  1. God, yes. I have never watched this and walked away not wanting to eat everything in my kitchen. The rice omelet and whatever the old pickpocket is eating always look amazing to me. Of course, pretty much all of the food looks amazing to me.

    I love everything about Tampopo. I love the stories it tells, I love the little side stories. The characters are wonderful, as are the homages to other film styles. And there are few film moments that make me genuinely happy like that row of four men draining their soup in unison.

    I can't say enough. I love this film so much. It renders me completely speechless.

  2. Happy Birthday!!! This is one of my very favorites as well. It makes me long for a bowl of noodles just thinking about it. How about the poor little kid who walks around with the sign on saying "Don't feed me".

    I bet you are looking forward to the winter break!

  3. First, Happy Birthday. Now you can look at your 1,001 Movies book.

    Second, if you have not seen it, you really need to watch Ang Lee's film Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). It's the first thing I ever saw from him. There's also Babette's Feast on the List, as well as Chocolat (2000) and Big Night (1996) that are not. And I'm drawing a blank on the name of a Mexican film I saw maybe 15-20 years ago where a young woman's emotions get baked into whatever she makes, so that when the people eat her food they feel the same way, whether it is happiness, hope, sadness, etc. Wait, it's Like Water for Chocolate.

    Second, part deux: are you old enough to have watched Carson do his Karnak routine on the Tonight Show? If not, the joke was that he could predict the questions sealed inside of envelopes and answer them before he even opens them. He would wear a turban like a fortuneteller. Well, he had one where he held the envelope to his forehead and answered "Eat Drink Man Woman". He then opened the envelope and read the question, "How did Arnold Schwarzenegger ask Maria Shriver out for their first date?"

    Third, I sometimes use the term "western" to refer to films even when they are not set in the old West. Star Wars is a western, for instance (young farmboy wants revenge for his father's death, hooks up with an old gunslinger who shows him the ropes, goes into a saloon, shares adventure with disreputable man who after some doubt turns out to be on the side of good, and rescues the pretty girl who is in trouble from the bad guy). Well, Tampopo is a western, too. A mysterious man rides into town, befriends a widow and her son, helps both of them against the bad guys, maybe has feelings for the widow but is too noble to show it, and rides out of town when his work is done. If that's not a western, then nothing is.

    1. And even if it's not a Western (and it is), there's that great scene where the guys from the bad noodle shop come to taste their "normal" noodles. It even features the kid running in and warning Tampopo and Goro (here as the peaceful settlers) about the approaching bad guys. Even if you don't want to call the whole film a Western, that scene is an homage to every scene where the battle ranchers/trainmen/outlaws arrive at the house of the poor-but-noble homesteaders who aren't lookin' for trouble.

      There's actually a lot of subtext here in the characters--the men all represent different parts of the world (and there's five of them, not four as mentioned in the previous comment). Goro, with his cowboy hat and steer horns on his truck is definitely American. The old doctor, loving gourmet food and sporting a beret, is French. Gun is all about Italian fashion. The chauffeur is Japan with his flair for noodles. Pisken comes off as Russian.

      But yeah, in a lot of ways, Tampopo = Shane, but with noodles. Delicious, glorious, wonderful noodles.