Film #20: Tampopo (1985)

aka: タンポポ
director: Jūzō Itami
language: Japanese
length: 114 minutes
watched on: 7 July

This was a delight of a film. It was advertised as a “Noodle Western”, which I thought was just a lame pun on “Spaghetti Western” implying that it was a Western made by the Japanese, but actually, it was a film about noodles that heavily used the conventions and tropes of the Western genre. In fact, more than just noodles, it was about Japanese food culture in general. It was also delightfully surreal at times. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

The main plot of the story involves a woman trying to be successful at running a local ramen bar. She enlists the help of a behatted stranger who shows up in a lorry one day, some kind of lone ranger. The list of supporting characters gradually grows over the course of the movie, and they’re all weird and cool in their own special ways.

Over the course of the movie, the cowboy character has to fight off various obstacles in a typical Western style, culminating in a really quite strange substitute for a shoot-out of two men decking it out underneath a busy highway on an industrial estate, while he forever pushes the woman further on her voyage of discovery.

Or something. While the story is interesting, in some ways, what actually made this film stand out were the numerous vinaigrettes (“vignettes” seemed a bit inappropriate for a film about food, so out come the malapropisms!), which each surround an aspect of food culture in Japan. They pop into the story occasionally to break it up into chunks.

Some of the more memorable ones include a young intern who humiliates his older superiors by knowing loads more about French cuisine in an expensive restaurant (a massive faux pas, I hear), followed shortly by a woman trying desperately to teach her class of young, impressionable débutante type girls that one should eat spaghetti without slurping, only to be foiled by a fat American slurping loudly at the next table – of course, seeing this they don’t believe her and they all start slurping loudly in imitation. Later we see a woman on her deathbed who just manages to summon the strength to cook for her husband and children – presumably, it’s all she does all day – before dropping dead in front of them. Morbid black humour by this point, of course.

Then, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie, we see two massive food fetishists going at it like bunnies – the bit where they pass an eggyolk from one’s mouth to the other’s goes from being almost understandable to downright bizarre after they keep doing it for more than a minute…

That’s not to say that the vinaigrettes were the only good thing about the film. I already mentioned the characters of the main storyline – one memorable introduction halfway through the film, for instance, was an old man who stubbornly refuses to follow the instructions of his minder when eating – she only wanted to prevent him from choking, and, of course, he chokes. And there are some great scenes where the two main characters are snooping around trying to steal ramen preparation techniques and recipes from their main competitors; evocative of the Western genre but keeping that air of slight ridiculousness.

I thought it was a great movie, essentially. It’s certainly funny, and it explores the various themes surrounding food – its consumption, its preparation and the social mores concerning it – well, without getting too boring. Definitely worth a watch.

Most importantly for me, perhaps, was the fact that watching this rekindled my interest in specifically Japanese food and film culture – a month or two later and I’ve done an interview and been offered a job in Japan to start next year, having realised that somewhere else, such as Korea or China, would be a bad idea when I know so comparatively little about it, and that I’ll regret it if I don’t end up going to Japan. It’s also just the other little things, like listening to the Japanese soundtrack to the movie and realising that I can actually understand isolated bits and pieces of the language (although annoyingly, it’s mostly the grammatical markers, and even then, only a few of them). Compare this to Korean or Chinese, of which I understand zero, and I think I’m making a wise choice in sticking with Japan…

Man, I’m hungry now.


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