Tampopo opens with the most delightful direct address to the audience in cinematic history. A gangster and his girlfriend sit down in the front row of a movie theatre, and served a buffet of food. “Oh, so you’re at a movie too, eh? What are you eating?” he asks us, and makes a forceful suggestion to keep the noise down. Next, we are taken into a class on how to enjoy a bowl of ramen, taught by the master of ramen to a lowly ramen student, played by a young Ken Watanabe. “Broth first, or noodles?” he asks. “You must put the beef aside, brush it with broth, and apologize to it, before eating the noodles” replies the master.
It then proceeds to tell the tale of two roaming ramen samurai, who find themselves in a restaurant run by the kindly and determined Tampopo (her name means dandelion, adorably). They turn her restaurant from a sad little ramen joint into a lovely, bustling shop, with many trials along the way. Also along the way, we find ourselves in a noodle slurping class, which (unsuccessfully) teaches Japanese women the proper, Italian way of eating noodles; in a hotel room with a gangster and his girlfriend, who kiss with an egg yolk in their mouths; and in a grocery store with an elderly woman who fondles the cheeses, while a disgruntled employee chases her around the shop.
Tampopo creates not only these delightful sketches, but a lovely structure to hang them all on. It sets up, develops, and pays off its main story with clarity and pathos, and also has a wealth of non-sequiter sketches connected only by their relation to food. No other film organizes itself this way, having a fully formed main story and also a bunch of random unconnected set pieces. In that sense it’s not like a bowl of ramen, rather a french meal with many courses, a main and a variety of appetizers, sides, and a sweet dessert.
A similar structure, that of many periodic digressions besides the main story, can be found in spoof comedies, but I can think of no spoof comedy that has a story as engaging as the story of Tampopo and her noodle shop. Furthermore spoof comedies contextualize their non-sequiturs within the story, for example think of a Seth MacFarlane film, in which one character says “this is like that time I took a class on noodle slurping” and then we cut to MacFarlane and his buddies in a scene far away. Tampopo bravely and singularly forgoes that kind of connection. After all, do you need an excuse to watch a noodle slurping class?
Tampopo is easy to watch but very hard to write about. Anyone’s first instinct, to write about all the masterfully funny scenes going on, will fail because nobody likes a joke spoiled for them. To write about the theme of all these sketches is also difficult, they’re so absurd and because they’re connected not by theme but by subject, and that subject . And what good does food writing do anyway? No matter how well I describe the beef or the noodles or the miso broth it will never compare to the way it’s photographed in the film, or the way it tastes when you immediately find a ramen restaurant after the film has ended. The only thing left is to describe the good-natured heart of Tampopo, which is found within the good-natured heart of Tampopo.
Like a lot of feel-good films, Tampopo is a story about mastery and self-improvement. We’re lulled into delirious laughter by the absurd comedy, but it strikes us just how much we feel for our main characters. Part of this relates to their likeability, but more than just liking them we sympathize with their quest, and admire it. To dedicate your life to mastery may be noble inherently, but mastery of something as unpretentious and universal as food is perhaps the most noble life there is. Perhaps this is why, of all Juzo Itami’s films, Tampopo has crossed the cultural barrier. Though idiosyncratic, it’s universal in the same way as a good bowl of soup. Its main story is pragmatic, practical, and yet the film makes room for a great many indulgences. In my recollection, Tampopo is the only celebration of professional mastery that indulges this much.
Not just a story about food, it’s also a story about sex, and the connection therein. But it explores this theme like no other story. It’s the only consistent theme that comes up in the skits besides food, with the gangster and his girlfriend (seen in the film’s opening) appearing several times, to demonstrate their love for each other in one way or another. This spills over into the main story as well: the ramen ronin and Tampopo share the duty of protagonist, acting as both a mentor/student pair and a romantic pair, though both would never admit it, she’s too shy and he’s too professional. This arc doesn’t dominate the film, but lies underneath all the prominent elements, like the broth underneath the surface pleasures of the film, and it does not conclude in the way one might expect. This thread of sex, love, and food climaxes in the film’s final image, which I dare not spoil.
I’d like to discuss another scene in the middle of Tampopo, a scene in which our main characters and Tampopo’s son all meet with a bunch of vagrants in the park, only to discover that they are “foodie vagrants”. They sneak into a hotel to make an omurice for Tampopo’s son, they teach Tampopo about broth, and finally, they sing. It’s unexpected and blindsiding, but also my favourite moment in the film. Perhaps I’m making the Tampopo sound more wholesome than it is, it’s full of sex, it’s violent in parts, and one sketch could be read as downright mean-spirited. To watch it you’ll need a high tolerance for non-sequiter weirdness. But I think that in the realm of comedies, Tampopo occupies the absolute peak of absurdist humour, as well as the peak of good-natured comedic stories that leave you feeling satisfied. Make sure that you watch it right before dinner, and make a reservation for a ramen shop right after.