Great Classics: Tampopo (Itami, 1985)

Who doesn’t love food?

Itami Juzo’s Tampopo is a heartwarming film about people who love, and are often obsessed with, food.  The main narrative follows two truck drivers, Gun (Yamazaki Tsutomu) and Goro (Watanabe Ken) who stumble upon a run down, unpopular ramen noodle shop.  The shop’s owner, Tampopo (Miyamoto Nobuko), is running it all by herself and isn’t too experienced in the “art” of making good ramen.  After a brawl, Gun and Goro take it upon themselves to improve Tampopo’s cooking and redefine her shop.  The film not only focuses on this narrative, but is interspersed with brilliantly transitioned scenes of people’s interaction with food: a white-suited yakuza (Yakusho Koji) and his mistress perform erotic acts with food, a group of homeless turn out to be master chefs, a young corporate subordinate upstages all of his superiors with his knowledge of French cuisine at an expensive dinner, an old lady sneaks around in a supermarket just to feel the food, among others.

Never missing a step, Yamazaki Tsutomu fully embodies the character of Gun.  His tough assertiveness, along with the willingness to fight and instigate others, gives him many of the characteristics that John Wayne’s famous cowboy persona’s had.  In fact, the entire cast is filled with likable, charismatic characters.  Tampopo is spunky, determined, and easy to root for–we want her to succeed in her quest for ramen-making perfection.  Yakusho Koji is also a welcome presence with his depiction of the erotic possibilities of food; in one scene he cracks an egg and the yolk is passed around between his mouth and his beautiful mistress’s.  It is ultimately the way in which these characters are portrayed on screen that gives them such a likable presence.  Food is universally loved–showing characters and their intense passion for food strikes a chord with everybody.  It also makes you hungry.

Itami’s use of scene transitions is brilliant in its unobtrusiveness.  Scenes suddenly shift without the viewer even noticing–it’s seamless perfection.  For example, there is a scene in which Tampopo is exercising outside under Gun’s supervision when a group of businessmen in suits walks past.  The camera decides to follow the businessmen to their destination, a French restaurant, to watch them order their food, then follows the waiter out into the main seating area where it stops to observe a group of women receiving a lesson on proper Western dining etiquette (eating without slurping…although a Western man in the restaurant is slurping his noodles loudly, much to the chagrin of the teacher).  As the businessmen’s waiter passes through, the camera follows him back to the business party.  You can’t help but enjoy the way this all works–the transitions make for a creative and ultimately successful approach to telling a story with multiple plot lines and random happenings.

Let’s take a look at a single scene, the “supermarket intrusion” scene.  In this scene, the camera catches eye of an old lady sneaking around and follows her into a supermarket where she moves from aisle to aisle, avoiding the flustered worker attempting to catch her, in order to touch and feel the food within.  View it below.

Now that you are smiling, I’m going to discuss the scene a bit.  There is no music here, only the sounds of shuffling, running, and the touching of food.  The camera is used to great effect, tracking around corners and between aisles, panning from side to side to demonstrate frantic glances, and performing like true chase cinematography, never quite settling down on anything but the food.  The old lady obviously has an obsession with food, but why only touch it?  It is possible that she may not be able to eat these things any longer, so she must make do with purely touching.  I’m not going to go deeply into the scene, as I’m sure it was added for purely comedic relief, but it is a prime example of the film’s attention to food obsession.

Itami created a masterpiece here, one that should be seen and loved by everyone.  There are not many films that display the kind of warm splendor that Tampopo emanates.  You cannot avoid smiling throughout the movie.  The characters become deeply involving and one cannot help but feel connected with them.  This is the ultimate film for food lovers.  Try to avoid the pangs hunger while watching.  I couldn’t.

    • katiesjapanfiles
    • July 18th, 2010

    This looks adorable – I’ve never heard of it before! I’ve been watching a lot of contemporary Japanese cinema, but I notice when I watch older films like this they really still have that sweet/funny dry quality to them.

    I remember Takeshi Kitano once saying that scenes need to be hurried along nowadays, and the content move faster. It’s a shame because a lot of, say Kikujiro’s humour hearkens back to this deadpan treatment.

    Great writeup!

    • I’ve found that Japanese cinema of the 80’s is very appealing to me. There is often an eccentric humor that exists in these films, also evident in Morita’s “Family Game” (which is another must-see, by the way). It’s also very easy to fall in love with the characters, which is a quality that I feel is lacking in much of contemporary cinema today (though there are exceptions).

      Thanks for the comment!

  1. Food may be the thread, but it’s Japanese social satire at its best.
    For Western palates, it’s Itami at his very best. Some of the most unforgettable cinematic scenes ever, make it one of the Best 100 of all time. It’s been well over 20 years, but I’ll be hunting down my third copy this week. The full uncensored edition of course.

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