By Michael McNaught
“So? You are at a movie too. What are you eating?”
There are few things in this world I enjoy more than a good western. They all play out as more or less the same story. A lone figure rides into a small town to fight bad guys and runs off into the sunset to fight another day. It’s a very American genre, but one of the best examples that comes to mind is from abroad. We’ve heard of spaghetti westerns, but have you ever heard of a ramen western? Regardless, if you love all things cowboys and food, you’ll love Tampopo.
Tampopo is a Japanese film, originally released in 1985 and directed by Juzo Itami. Itami didn’t start directing until his fifties but he had a long and successful acting career up to that point which made him a recognizable name for Japanese audiences (an apt comparison would be Robert De Niro, who didn’t turn to directing until his mid-fifties [with his release of A Bronx Tale]). Tampopo was only Itami’s second feature, but with a filmmaking style that was all his own and a brilliant script he also wrote, Tampopo is a story that will warm the hearts of older viewers. If it weren’t for a graphic hotel scene I’d recommend it to all ages.
The film opens with a scene of movie goers in a theatre. Of these viewers is a sharply dressed couple who have come with their own snacks: this includes a chilled bottle of champagne, a full picnic basket, hors d’oeuvres, and their own table. All provided by their very own kitchen staff mind you. After the man takes a sip of his drink he looks towards the camera and says “So, you are at a movie too. What are you eating?” Almost mocking us, the viewers at home, who surely wish we had as good a spread as they did. This is all played for comedic effect, but just as the projector starts rolling he gets philosophical. “They say when you die you see something like a movie. A life kaleidoscoped into a few seconds. I look forward to that movie … I definitely don’t want it interrupted.” This opening sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Tampopo is a film that will make you laugh, but it will also leave you with a sense of wonder that can’t truly be understood without seeing it for yourself. At its core Tampopo is a comedic western, but not to the tune of a parody like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. More than that it is about love and our relationship with food.
While the couple appears throughout the film they aren’t the primary focus. That would be Tampopo (which translates to ‘Dandelion’ in English) a single mother who runs a struggling ramen shop. When two truckers stop at her restaurant for a quick bite to eat and a scuffle ensues with the locals, they agree to stay and train her to become the best ramen chef there is. Imagine if Shane were set in 1980’s Japan, and instead of a family farm Ryker was after a well cooked meal. The story is a series of small vignettes that each shed their own light on the meaning of food, with Tampopo as the main protagonist. Itami’s wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, stars as the lead and delivers a heartwarming performance as the struggling ramen cook.
Her costar Ken Watanabe (Tsutomu) plays the charming and stoic truck driver. He’s the cowboy of this story, complete with his own hat. He’s not the serious character we see in most American westerns. There’s a little bit of that in Tsutomu’s DNA as a character, but he’s not Clint Eastwood. There’s a nuance to Watanabe’s performance that makes him difficult to pin down. He’s stoic but he’s also not afraid to help a woman cook ramen or open up about his past. There’s a light heartedness and sensitivity to Tsutomu that is difficult to balance, which makes for one of many compelling performances throughout the movie.
This film is not for most movie goers. It’s not something I would recommend it to just anyone. But for anyone willing to sit with it, Tampopo is a beautiful film that makes you want to get in the kitchen and start cooking. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen while on quarantine. It can be found for free on YouTube.