Tampopo (1985)
Nicholas Driscoll
July 1, 2012
Note: review may contain spoilers

Let's start off with a little language lesson, this time of a word that I have an odd sort of fondness for: Tanpopo, which just happens to be the movie I will be reviewing here—except the accepted transliteration for the movie title is Tampopo, or, in katakana (the way the title is written in Japan), タンポポ. However you write it, the word means “dandelion”—one of my favorite flowers in the world (don’t call it a weed). You’ll notice that the “n” can be written as an “m,” and this is because of one of the pronunciation peculiarities of Japanese particular to the character  (or  in hiragana), which is usually pronounced as “n” (such as at the end of “Nihon”), but can be pronounced as “m” when it comes next to a consonant pronounced with the lips initially together (like p). For consistency’ sake, I like to stick with the “n” transliteration.

In today's movie, director Juzo Itami’s most famous work, Tanpopo also happens to be the name of a woman who owns her own ramen shop, Lai Lai Ramen (I think that means “come come ramen” in Chinese—which is appropriate, because ramen originated in China). Like her namesake, Tanpopo too has a sunny disposition, is blown by the wind (or at least by her aspirations) hither and thither, and, as a lame way to tie her into the exciting vocabulary discussion above, different folk view her in different ways. Her son thinks of her as a splendid cook, her rivals think of her as unwelcome competition, and Goro the truckdriver sees her as something quite more significant.

But perhaps we should go ahead and dig in to the scrumptious plot before we spoil anything further. (Prepare for a lot of food puns in this review, folks.) Bon appétit!

After an amusing vignette wherein a well-dressed yakuza (Koji YakushoShall We Dance?) talks to the camera about how important it is to stay quiet during the movie, we follow Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Red Beard, Departures) and Gun (Ken WatanabeInceptionThe Last Samurai) as they drive across Japan, reading a book about ramen appreciation aloud to one another. They stop at Lai Lai Ramen to get a bite to eat, and come across a group of toughs inside. After a big brawl, the owner of the ramen shop, Tanpopo (played by the director's wife, Nobuko Miyamoto) discovers that Goro is a ramen expert, and enlists his help in recreating her restaurant. Throughout the rest of the film, Goro helps Tanpopo to “train,” helps steal secret recipes from competitors, and seeks out sundry eccentric ramen gurus across Japan. All of this is additionally flavored with a variety of mostly unconnected skits revolving around food, including a series of sexually overspiced ones starring the aforementioned yakuza. All throughout, Goro and Tanpopo's feelings for each other also seem to be cooking up. Will the perfect ramen be achieved, or will the recipe fail to come together, and the final product come out undercooked, a plot gone sour?

Tampopo is not a movie of many deep characterizations or thrilling plot twists. Rather, the plot simmers with a variety of unexpected ingredients and absurd observations of life in Japan. From the start, wit is a main ingredient, with many scenes of mostly gentle humor centered on the folly and fun of food. There’s a sort of happy-go-lucky feel, as even the tramps are connoisseurs and experts in food, and a fist-fight will, likely as not, lead to friendship. All this is wrapped in a tortilla of western tropes (Goro, after all, wears a cowboy outfit), earning the movie the distinction of being called a “noodle western.” Though this is one of the most unusual “westerns” I have ever seen.

Though the movie subtly skewers Japanese social customs (such as business hierarchy at dinners, and dinnertime manners), the main message of the film, if there is one, is basically to convey a sincere love for food ala Ratatouille or Babette’s Feast, but wackier, and with more “adult” elements. The depiction of food, as many other reviewers have also noted, is handled scrumptiously—seriously, I so wanted a real bowl of ramen while watching this movie. This movie really stimulates the saliva, and does a fine job of underlining the fineness of food, the centrality of victuals to life, and compares the consumption of grub to the consummation of sexual intercourse. Like the other Juzo Itami films I have seen (The Funeral and A Taxing Woman), Itami does not shy away from sexual depictions and/or naked body parts, and thus squeamish viewers should be warned. (I’m one of those squeamish viewers, admittedly, and one particular scene was much too erotic for my tastes.) There is also a scene where a live turtle gets slaughtered to make a delectable treat, which might scandalize some animal lovers. After the film ends, the credits slide down the screen over the scene of a child suckling at a woman’s breast as the camera zooms in closer and closer to the juncture of breast and sleepy baby face, thus clinching the theme of food and life.

Despite the lack of deep characterization, the characters are nevertheless stuffed with life, and the actors are anything but half-baked. Tsutomu Yamazaki’s Goro is at turns stoic, hard-hitting, and bombastically excited about his passion for ramen. Nobuko Miyamoto as Tanpopo holds up her end with energy as a hard-working, excitable, passionate, but caring woman in a hard spot. Throughout the movie, the supporting cast is deliciously entertaining, from Rikiya Yasuoka and his delightful gangster drawl, to Koji Yakusho's dapper tomfoolery, to the enthused slurping of the army of table-manner students at the Japanese restaurant, and the tricky geezer thief. The cast is a blast of popcorn surprises.

The eclectic soundtrack complements the movie well in that it is odd. Classical music blares dramatically over taste-testing scenes, and a mix of plucky tunes pop up and season the often bizarre goings-on.

And Tampopo is bizarre, really an acquired taste. The film is certainly memorable, with often pleasingly quirky cinematography, and creative sequences peppering the story. Some, like me, may be mildly disappointed that characterization is overwhelmed by silly sauce, but this is deliberate. No doubt the movie is a full eight-course meal made by a top chef, including appetizers, and inevitably some scenes will not please your palate, but still Tampopo is an impressive spread. Nevertheless, though I recognize the quality of craft, I probably will not go back for seconds.