Charming and unique. It meanders all over the shop and doesn't have a storyline half the time, but that's deliberate even if it does mean you'll need a bit of staying power to stick with it.
Is this a film? Not by recognised Hollywood definitions. It's more of a free-form narrative improvisation from writer/director Juzo Itami, albeit one in which he'll usually tend to be following the adventures of ramen cook Tampopo. (He obscures this by taking a while to introduce her.) Nearly as often though, he'll be doing whatever seemed like a laugh at the time. I felt a Monty Python vibe. Strangers will wander past, whereupon the camera will abandon whatever we'd been watching and instead follow these new guys for a while. Comedy sketches can pop out at you at any time, like dandelions that won't stop growing in a lawn. (Tampopo means "dandelion".) These are about characters we'll never meet again, but they're also dryly funny.
What's this all about? Answer: food, generally ramen (a noodle dish, served with lots of toppings in a soup). Tampopo (played by Itami's wife, Nobuko Miyamoto) runs a ramen store, badly. She's not a good cook. Tsutomu Yamazaki (High and Low
, Red Beard, Departures
) and Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins
) are two truckers who tell her so. This launches us on a culinary journey through all levels of society, from super-rich food snobs to the homeless.
Viewed as a drama with conventional storytelling, this will test your patience. The plot is fairly relaxed and Itami often gives us holidays from it. However if viewed as half a sketch show, thematically it's tight. Almost everything's about food. Some of the funniest sketches are explorations of specific points, e.g. the spaghetti lesson is about the difference between spaghetti (eaten silently) and ramen (meant to be slurped). It's very, very Japanese (e.g. the mockery of "follow my leader" business kow-towing, the death from overwork), but that's a good thing. Food is cultural. Trying to divorce food from culture will leave everyone eating Big Macs. This film is a deeply peculiar celebration of ramen, rice omelettes, raw egg yolks and a distressing bit with a turtle that to be honest I'd have rather not seen.
We begin with a yakuza in a white suit and a panama hat, who's sitting in a cinema watching us watching him. Waiters bring him a feast. He doesn't want his fellow patrons even to eat popcorn... but you'll like his reasons. Cinemas would be better places if they all had this guy threatening to kill people if their watch alarms go off. (He doesn't mention mobile phones, but that's because this is 1985.) Practically the first thing this film does is to break the fourth wall. After that, our yakuza starts watching Tampopo (the film), in which our first view of Yamazaki is presented to look like an old-fashioned parody and Itami instead gets us giving more attention to a book-within-a-film-within-a-film.
Food is taken very seriously. We rummage through the dustbins of rival restaurants to study their techniques. There's what I can only call zen ramen.
However at the same time, the film also has memorable characters. I've always loved craggy, instantly recognisable Tsutomu Yamazaki. He's always great, whether you're watching black-and-white Kurosawa films or Space Battleship Yamato
. Here, he's basically playing the hero in a Western. He even keeps on his cowboy hat in the bath.
Just as important though is the gentle, adorable Miyamoto, who I think was in almost all her husband's films (excluding those from when he was just an actor). Good judgement on his part. Miyamoto's a good actress, but also I can hardly imagine anyone having a face that seems kinder or more likeable.
I'm fascinated by Juzo Itami. His father had also been a satirist and film director, before World War Two. The son became an award-winning actor, before switching to being a writer/director at the age of fifty with The Funeral in 1984. Tampopo was his second film and was an international hit. He took the piss out of the yakuza in Minbo no Onna (1992) to such stinging effect that they had him beaten up and hospitalised, after which his next movie was rude about the Japanese health system. He died in 1997 after falling off a building and it was reported that he'd committed suicide, but it has also been claimed that he was murdered by criminals he'd been planning to target in his next movie. I need to watch more of this guy's films.
Tampopo doesn't feel controversial or edgy at all, though. Occasionally it might startle you (e.g. the food sex, the turtle, the dodgy oyster girl scene), but for the most part it's just nice. You might almost say cuddly. Everyone likes food. This film likes food too, to such an extent that it feels as if Itami's invented a new food-comedy equivalent of Kingsley Amis's SF notion of "idea as hero". I occasionally found it a bit of a slog, because it's 114 minutes long and not particularly interested in storytelling momentum. However, like Monty Python, it's askew and eccentric enough to keep you watching even when you're in a lull between great bits.
The funniest bits are the sketches, even if sometimes you're not sure why. The Food Fondler, for instance...