Criterion Prediction #72: Tampopo, by Alexander Miller
Director: Juzo Itami
Cast: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho Rikiya Yasuoka
Synopsis: After listening to a bizarre tape regarding the dining etiquette of eating noodles, two truck drivers can’t help but satiate their appetites at the nearest noodle bar. The two truck drivers, Goro ( Yamazaki) and Gun (a young Watanabe), inspire the proprietor to step up her game and enlist these restaurateurs to transform the modest establishment in order to beat the flashy new joint in town and, of course, make the best bowl of noodles.
Critique: Tampopo is a crazy movie. Juzo Itami’s freewheeling narrative tastefully satirizes the various cultural customs from all sides of the globe while evoking a myriad of genres and film styles. It’s a movie that’s difficult to describe but impossible to resist it’s endearingly silly as Itami chucks structure and formula for his idiosyncratic culinary love letter that segues in and out of side stories that add to the fun, maintaining an unpretentious tone in the fourth wall breaking introduction.
Given its reputation or “art film” credentials, it would be easy to interpret or anticipate the film to wander down the path of indulgent Fellini-esque territory. However, its more satirical moments are aimed at the stuffy pretensions of dining etiquette and food culture, an avenue that could use a little deflating more so now with the ever-enlightened “foodie” contingent.
Itami’s film has an erratic pulse of seductive charm as it pole vaults from the central narrative of two magnificent strangers and their dedication to Tampopo’s (whose name translates to Dandelion) restaurant to a series of Buñuel-inspired sequences ranging from the absurd to bawdy.
We find a gangster and his girlfriend satisfy their appetites for sex and food reconciled in the same venue. An east/west conflation when an etiquette class are taught the finer points of twirling spaghetti, meanwhile a fleet of stuffy older businessmen are shocked when their nebbish underling is revealed to be a well-versed gourmet at a French restaurant – and how does one process an exhumed woman returning to make one last meal for her family? The surrealist sidesteps fire off in so many witty referential directions the dizzying conclusion is revelatory when you realize that a film can make a cultural statement and do it through laughter. This is analogous tethering splintered into an unlikely amalgam featuring filmic giants like Fellini, Buñuel, Brooks–even the antics of Monty Python came to mind at points–all the while retaining the refinement of the staple mono no aware ( a Japanese term meaning “an awareness of things”) as realized by the likes of Mizoguchi, and Ozu. This pilling might sound messy, but Tampopo doesn’t veer off the rails but draw you in further because it’s made with heart and a genuine love for food. The humor and energy resemble that of sugar high children giggling their way through a sleepover, but remarkably mature in the overall execution; there’s nothing like Tampopo, and yes this movie will make you want noodles.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Tampopo enjoyed a great deal of international success around the time of its release and for a period it was not uncommon to see Tampopo and Itami’s subsequent film The Funeral on VHS at video stores. As a matter of fact, I still have a VHS of the latter. So when a movie of some popularity from a foreign filmmaker that’s more contemporary (compared to the likes of Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi) resurfaces due to a recent restoration, it’s more often than not on the verge of a Blu-Ray release, and who better than The Criterion Collection to host such a unique title? Tampopo isn’t so much an “unknown” film, but a lesser seen movie that might be a blind spot for those who weren’t perusing the arthouse/foreign sections at their local video stores.
Distribution-wise, Tampopo is available through a 2005 Fox Lorber DVD but, for a lot of films from Japan, Hong Kong and China, early DVD’s were simply Laserdisc rips with poor image quality and glitchy subtitles.
Images from this recent restoration look magnificent and Criterion could have teased the film with their annual wacky drawing this year, unless they were referring to Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman.