★★★★ / ★★★★
Food lovers of all palates are certain to relish the numerous delectable images in “Tampopo,” an original, daring, and amusing love letter to our relationship with food, not only as a source of nourishment but how it makes us feel good—its visual presentation, scents, textures, flavors, the memories they evoke. Although a comedy, its strategy is never one-note as it consistently introduces one playful scenario after another. Yet, still, the picture does not come across as desultory, never relying on a parade of half-cocked ideas as painfully generic comedies so often do.
On the contrary, it is cohesive, its boundless enthusiasm serving as glue between episodes that may or may not relate to the main plot directly. Better yet—the film is not about plot; its focus is to provide a warm, sensory experience. Its overall goal, I think, is to tickle us from the side of our stomach and, over time, the very funny scenarios pave the way for the sensation to spread vertically in both directions.
With his sidekick named Gun (Ken Watanabe), a truck driver accepts a widow’s desperate plea to help improve her ramen restaurant. In a series of montages reminiscent of samurai pictures, Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki) shows Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) the way, beginning with carefully observing how neighboring, more successful restaurants work—even though a few of them serve subpar ramen. Naturally, they come across characters along the way who will contribute to the realization of the perfect Japanese ramen.
The beauty about its approach is that it works as a satire on one level. However, looking more closely, it touches upon a number of oft forgotten artistry. For example, Gorô points out the importance of welcoming customers with vigor as they enter one’s place of business; looking at them in the eyes while taking their orders; smiling; delivering a warm and happy body language; remembering who ordered which item, any specifications, and in which sequence. Once the meal is served: observing the patrons’ reactions to it, particularly taking note of how they leave their bowls. Is there soup or noodle left? Why?
In a way, the film provides an educational experience. Each step is informative because it is a chance for the owner/server to evaluate how business is going—not necessarily when it comes to money but it terms of service: providing satisfaction and happiness. Note that not once is money shown on screen because that is not the point, you see. We hear the coins jingle while they are being handed from consumer to staff, but it is almost like an afterthought. During the action of providing payment, the camera remains distant from a couple of feet away as it continues to underscore the essence of a beautiful personal—and communal—experience.
Lodged in between the breezy strides of the main plot is further levity. They are bold but handled with class. An old woman who visits a supermarket not to buy food but to grope and squeeze them. Notice her facial expressions as she molests each item. An etiquette class composed of only women on how to eat spaghetti… and the man sitting from a few feet away who doesn’t care about such formalities. It makes us question which extreme is more ridiculous. A gangster (Kôji Yakusho) and his lover (Fukumi Kuroda) incorporate food into their sex life. We return to these two several times. At first what they share is amusing, taboo, but it grows to be quite erotic. The couple is so beautifully photographed, I wished they had their own movie.
“Tampopo” is written with great imagination and directed with a keen eye by Jûzô Itami. Even though it is a comedy, certainly a parody in some ways and a satire of spaghetti westerns at times which means that no one is immune from becoming the target of our amusement, it is ensured in every frame that we feel the love he has for his characters, and that it is important for him that we learn to love them, too. It is a work that has the power to change one’s mood completely, a bowl of lovingly prepared hot ramen soup on a cold, rainy day.