Tampopo is a comic satire about the enjoyment of food, and then some, but it could be perceived as earnest if viewing just the main narrative. Itami does not seek to expose and ridicule, but sprinkles loving touches throughout the story of a widow's struggling noodle business. In an early scene, Goro recounts how his master taught him the mysteries and treasures of the ramen bowl, and how he delicately assigns each segment its own personality; each slice of pork, each strand of noodle (smooth but strong!), the slowly sinking seaweed. Such an ode to a simple staple meal could be inserted in many films about food, and Itami only slightly exaggerates. And it's effective too - films about food should make you hungry, and imbue you with the same sense of passion for cooking as the characters do. I made noodles immediately after watching this.
He reaches instead by making a familiar situation ridiculous. A lone wanderer (he has a young Ken Watanabe in tow, who does not do much) drifts into a bar on a rainy night and quietly threatens a drunk scoundrel, before being beaten soundly offscreen by 5 men (they later have a 'rematch' which ends in them congratulating on each other's prowess). Later, in a voyeuristic and mysterious moment heightened by the soundtrack, Tampopo is lead by a stranger through back alleys and grimy shops to a slit in the wall, which reveals not a secret conspiracy or cult, but a man preparing soup stock. When a rival restaurant is challenged, the stride into the scene fanned out like a posse from a western, looking for retribution. In the climatic shoot-out, the banging drums once again make this tenser than a meal could ever be, and the camera slides slowly across each taster (and here the sound design is just both incredible and funny - not horses galloping, gunshots or an iconic whistle, but slurping, slurping and more slurping), before the music crescendos with them downing the soup in unison. And after the whole affair, Goro wanders away to yet another story, like a Blondie or an Ethan Edwards.
Tampopo remains earnest herself, Miyamoto giving a delightful performance. There is much played straight in the narrative of revitalising the noodle joint; lessons in dissecting each facet of the customer's body language, needs and personality, timing the preparation of each bowl and memorising orders to a tee could fit snugly into a similar movie as a training montage. In one particularly shining moment, she echoes the biting criticisms of a rival's noodles and all she has learned while bobbing in and out and behind Goro, all with the adorable creased smile on her face. She reacts to failure with teary disappointment, and to success with delight and dedication. It is in fact the aspect of playing it straight that creates much of the comedy. Food is taken very seriously, even by the homeless, who compare fine wines like they were at the dinner table, not crouching in a rubbish dump. And like true food snobs, they lament about declines in product quality and the departure of the human touch, but that is complimented by the loving way in which a rice omelette is delicately fried; maybe they do know a thing or too. They, like Tampopo, talk of food with wide eyes and sly smiles, and are completely and utterly earnest.
We see the same in the little vignettes sprinkled throughout the main story, and it creates an outrageous and absurd humour. A young man sees his older colleagues all order rather plain meals, and then inquires at length about the fine cuisines on the menu, and then keeps going and going, all while he is being prodded to hurry up. Weeping children are told to finish every last bite of their meal, just like at any dinner table, only this one is cooked by the dead wife. The silence of a posh socialite lesson is invaded by the slurping of a man nearby, and then to the horror of the elder, the attempts by her students begin to form a cacophony of slurps that only increase in volume and intensity!
And then there is the sort of desire that approaches sensual levels, quite literally (First, caress the pork with your chopsticks). A slurp of an oyster (a strong vaginal symbol) turns into a heated sensual exchange, and the music makes it out to be some heavenly beauty and romance. And the main couple engage in a series of fetishized sexual acts involving a struggling shrimp shrimp against the bare belly, dipping body parts into cream, and something out of a drunk party game (I've seen it with ice), which involves slipping an egg yolk between each other's mouths. This is so so sincere, and their bodies shake with delight even as I shuddered in disgust. And at the end of their own little story, the gangster has been fatally shot, and his poetic final words turn into a long winded spiel about the yam sausages and the best garnishes to go with them. This is absolutely hilarious, because first Itami hits all the usual clichés (the shhh-ing of the weeping lover, the leaving of a memento, the reminiscing of a long bygone time), second because it goes on for far longer than these death scenes usually go on, faking out the audience several times, and finally because it is still treated as absolutely serious - I mean, listen to the music. And the final image is a perfect combination of the hedonistic urges that Tampopo is made up of - a baby eagerly sucking on a mother's breast. Even an infant knows what it wants.
3 out of 3 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.