A local ramen shop gets help from the Man with a Name in Juzo Itami’s highly pleasant 1985 comedy.
“You stupid amateurs could never appreciate my noodles!”
I’ve talked before about Asian cinema’s western movies. There’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird which wears its influences proudly, and Sukiyaki Western Django which is an homage in the same way Quentin Tarantino’s movies are homages; that is to say, they’re not at all. Then we have movies in which the resemblances are smaller, more subtle, movies where there are fewer bandits and way more angry ramen chefs. I’m talking about 1985’s Tampopo.
The movie focuses around truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who is equal parts ruggedness and charm, and his partner Gun (played by a shockingly young Ken Watanabe). After a quick aside where Gun reads to Goro a short story about ramen, they arrive at a small ramen place where they hope to regain energy before carrying on. They help a bullied kid out, and learn he’s the son of the owner of the shop, a widow named Tampopo. Goro runs foul with Pisken, and a fight ensues resulting in Goro being beaten.
He awakens in Tampopo’s house the following morning and after some chit-chat, he gives her an honest review of her noodles: in that they kind of suck. She asks what she can do to change this and Goro decides to stay for a little while and help Tampopo improve her business. His methods include taking her to his old ramen master – a homeless man whose gang of hobos take only the finest foods – to help, and sneaking around other ramen shops to see what their soups consist of. Over time, Tampopo learns how to build the business without her husband, and make the noodle shop her own.
And that’s it. Tampopo’s storyline is incredibly simple, which is a massive point in its favour. It probably would have been easy to throw in an evil rival or a corrupt official or something – after all, its western influences are incredibly prominent – but it instead takes us on an easy, scenic route filled with delightful moments and very likeable characters. Right off the bat, the movie establishes itself as a bit goofy and light hearted, with a scene involving a man in a white suit (who makes a few appearances later on), watching a movie with his girl. When someone interrupts with some noisy popcorn, he flips out and talks directly to the audience about how much he hates that sort of thing. It’s a cute introduction to the tone of the film, while simultaneously the audience to keep quiet – definitely something I think other movies should consider.
Tampopo is loaded with this sort of humour, which is largely found in the cutaway gags and small vignettes that help flesh out the movie. None of them affect the plot in any meaningful way, but the randomness of the ideas keeps the movie from veering too far into drama territory. As I mentioned above, the man in white features heavily, usually with his mistress and usually doing something sexual with food. There’s a great vignette about a man who races home to his wife on her deathbed, only for her to get up and make his dinner, before succumbing to her illness. Another great short involves a shopkeeper trying to stop an old lady from squishing all his produce. None of them lead anywhere, but they strangely fit. In another film, they probably would have looked awkward and tacked on, but here, they work.
But what about the main story? It did take me a while to piece together why this was considered a “ramen western”, but the entire structure of the story fits with the genre. A stranger rides into town, gets into a brawl with local yahoos, and helps the little people by amassing a posse. Some of the visual influences are much easier to grasp: Goro is never seen without his cowboy hat, and his gruff appearance is highly reminiscent of John Wayne. There are also tonnes of little sight gags and frames straight-up copied from Hollywood films. But, unlike similar films you might find in the genre, Tampopo does it well and this probably goes back to the tone it establishes right at the beginning. It knows it’s a film, but doesn’t rub it in your face. It’s self aware exactly the right amount, which is a tricky balancing act when you’re also trying to tell a sweet, heart-warming story.
Tampopo is loaded with delightful moments, dialogue and characters, and the weird skits between scenes never feel wedged in or out of place. Considering how much of it is about food in some form or another (especially ramen), you’ll probably even come out of the movie knowing how to make an excellent noodle soup. Somehow, director Juzo Itami takes ingredients to what could have very easily been a disaster and instead cooks up a clear, flavoursome broth of a movie. But damn am I hungry now.
Verdict: Tampopo is a fun, silly time with tonnes of good performances as well as lots and lots of food gags.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Sex: 4/10. Knocked down a point for that egg yolk thing.
That egg yolk thing: Sexy? I guess? Yeesh.
Cowboy hats: Good for the bath, too
Pisken: Since when does an interior designer have goons?
What else have we learned?: I know a great sausage recipe now.
Also known as: タンポポ
Director: Juzo Itami
Writer: Juzo Itami
Tsutomu Yamazaki – Goro
Nobuko Miyamoto – Tampopo
Koji Yakusho – Man in White Suit
Ken Watanabe – Gun
Rikiya Yasuoka – Pisuken
Kinzo Sakura – Shohei
Yoshi Kato – Noodle-making master
Hideji Otaki – Rich Old Man
Fukumi Kuroda – Man in White Suit’s mistress
Setsuko Shinoi – Old Man’s mistress
Yoriko Doguchi – Pearl diver
Masahiko Tsugawa – Supermarket manager
Yoshihiro Kato – Man in White Suit’s henchman
Mariko Okada – Supageti sensei
Ryutaro Otomo – Ramen master
Toshiya Fujita – Man with Toothache