Tuesday, July 30, 2013

FI: Tampopo

Japan, 1985
Written and Directed by Juzo Itami

Japanese culture reveres food, such that dedicated chefs will spend a lifetime tweaking and perfecting even the simplest-seeming dishes (as seen in the Hokkaido episode of No Reservations and the absorbing documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Juzo Itami's Tampopo, then, is a film that lovingly satirizes this pursuit of perfection, using food as the theme that connects all its disparate parts. To that end, Itami incorporates cinematic references to several iconographies and genres, fitting them towards the story of a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) who aspires to create the best ramen possible.

Tampopo was billed as a "Ramen Western," and these elements are obvious and amusingly deployed. In Westerns, a mysterious stranger often rides into a troubled town, where he and his young protege protect the townfolk and drive off the bad guys until his rootless ways similarly drive him off. Here, the stranger and his apprentice are a pair of truck drivers, the cowboy-hat clad Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and young Gun (Ken Watanabe of Inception and The Last Samurai), the town is the Lai Lai noodle restaurant, and the "bad guys" are kids who bully Tampopo's son (Mampei Ikeuchi) and a belligerent drunk customer named Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka). Goro decides to stick around and train Tampopo to achieve her ambition, introducing her to Tokyo's culinary underworld, where even tramps and hobos know more about food than I ever will. Meanwile, Itami punctuates this story with humorous interstitial sequences—some loosely connected, some completely stand-alone—that all center around food in some way.

Though some of these sketches (for lack of a better word) are inherently funny—one stand-out involves a chase between an elderly woman who over-squeezes various items at a market and the clerk who tries to stop her—they break up the main narrative too much, causing the film to drag in places. The Western conceit is only haltingly applied and feels too thin to be a direct parody, and some of the gags will get lost in cultural specificity. That said, Tampopo's light, breezy tone creates an enjoyable atmosphere of genial, positive feelings, and there are more than enough laughs to carry us through the doldrums. Just be sure to have a menu for your local Japanese place handy, because after Tampopo's sumptuous food photography, you'll probably have a hankering for noodles.

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