A friend seeing Tampopo for the first time said, “this is the craziest film I’ve ever seen!” The exclamation mark was palpable. You can see where she was coming from: this is a Japanese comic-western about food and, occasionally, sex.
I saw it for the first time in an independent London cinema in the 80s; as you can imagine it was not on the main distribution run for multiplexes. But you have to take seriously any movie given four stars out of four by the estimable critic Roger Ebert, who compared it with the great comedies of the legendary French actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati.
The slight storyline, strongly but not accidentally reminiscent of Seven Samurai, concerns a John Wayne-ish truck driver called Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his mate Gun (Ken Watanabe) helping widowed Tampopo – Japanese for “dandelion” (Nobuko Miyamoto, wife of director Juzo Itami) – fight back against the competition to run a top notch noodle parlour – and in the process assembling their own version of the Seven Samurai, though it is supplemented by an assortment of comic sketches thrown in for good measure.
The one recurring element of these sketches is the man in the white suit (Kōji Yakusho) and his girl, thereby adding some tongue-in-cheek Japanese gourmet eroticism to the food porn on display at regular intervals. This descends into near-paedophilic levels when a young oyster diver mops up the blood from his cut lip by licking it off. I doubt that scene would appear in any remake.
First thing you have to realise about Tampopo is that noodle culture is a very serious business in Japan, one reason why sending it up is so easy – but the reverence for everything ramen is plainly evident throughout the film. Every aspect is lovingly recreated with incredible attention to detail: the ingredients in the soup, and how it must never boil in order to retain clarity; how long the fresh noodles must be left to mature; how thick to slice the pork; the speed of service and the importance of remembering each variation requested by customers; and pretty much everything else you can think of.
It also covers the culture of eating said noodles, from the first scene with a young man learning the art from a master. Another example demonstrates to perfection the distinct Japanese noodle culture, being one of several scenes from a luxurious restaurant involves a group of young ladies from a posh finishing school being educated by their teacher in how to eat noodles (in this case pasta) silently, but giving up in despair when they copy a man on a nearby table following the Japanese tradition of sucking up and slurping noodles and soup as noisily as possible: cue much lip-smacking.
Some of the sketches are hilarious, while others fall flat – as you would expect – but the funniest moments are unquestionably where the western genre is being sent up. At times this is subtle but works a treat – and every cliché is there, if you look for it.
But ultimately it is food that comes out best from Tampopo, and not just noodles either, though it always makes me hungry for a bowl of noodle soup. If, like me, you are a foodie, you cannot help but enjoy this film.