Recently, I was promoted within the city library system in which I am employed. Rather than stay within the same division, however, I was moved to where they needed people. So, as excited and proud as I was to advance professionally, I was not jazzed about leaving the branch I’d been working for nearly a year. The thing is, I love the people I got to work with. For one, they are all smarter, harder working, and typically kinder than I am. And yet, they were supportive of me, and confident I’d be out of their hair, much more than I was in myself. And as much as I’d like to believe I seized the right opportunities, made the right impressions, and put in the right amount of effort, I was primed by the people around me.
This is true for any person with any sort of skill set. They are the product of every person in their field before them, something that Juzo Imati’s Tampopo not only recognizes, but celebrates. Tampopo is perhaps–in the least elegant of metaphors–the “Pickle Rick” of Japanese cinema in the 80s. What if a film was made about making ramen? How far can that premise be taken? A warm and surreal commentary on craft and forming one’s own style, Imati takes Tampopo to some of the most imaginative and unexpected places, with nary a dull or false moment in sight.
Tampopo is a widower, running a ramen shop left to her by her husband. She has a son to raise, and no other source of income. And while she’s being pressured to sell the place to a childhood friend–who we meet as a belligerent drunk–Tampopo is trying to make the arrangement work. Enter Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki): a seasoned cowboy trucker type who isn’t afraid to brawl, but has a subdued masculinity to him. With his co-pilot Gun (Ken Watanabe, which whaaaat?), Goro relents to Tamopop’s pleas for help improving her ramen. Along the way, Goro and Tampopo stake out the competition, and enlist help from various friends and colleagues.
In between Tampopo’s rise from struggling shop owner to a ramen cook with her own style are a series of vignettes. Each relates the way food exists socially, the norms we bring to food, and how some individuals break the rules. One segment includes a business meeting where everyone orders the same conservative dish, while a young executive orders a decidedly more extravagant meal. Another focuses on a sick woman who, at the behest of her hysterical husband, cooks a final dinner for her family. Perhaps the most notable includes a gangster and his significant other–who more or less have a subplot that bookends the whole picture–using food rather sensually; this includes making out, while swapping a raw egg with an unbroken yolk between one another. These sideshows are an odd gambit that adds so much color and emotion that allow Tampopo the film to be a great one, instead of being a pleasant underdog story.
That Tampopo can both juggle so many balls is impressive by itself; the fact that the film is so beautifully put together is what makes the picture a genuine miracle. Itami mixes so many genres, and even synthesizes several references–which his characters directly allude to throughout the film. The most notable point of reference is that Tampopo draws from American westerns–Itami even refers to Tampopo as a “ramen western,” as opposed to a “spaghetti western.” Goro’s look is certainly a nod to Clint Eastwood, while his arc is much closer to John Wayne in The Searchers, or Alan Ladd in Shane. Tampopo’s story, meanwhile, is closer to a sports movie–with a Rocky training montage to boot. The vignettes interspersed throughout the film are each clear nods to various French New Wave staples–the conceit itself owing to The Phantom of Liberty, with whiffs of everything from Pickpocket to Breathless. At one point, Goro even refers to the band of misfits helping Tampopo out as if they are making a film–and with him as the director, naturally. Some stories might feel tacky or obnoxious for being so nakedly self-referential, and if Tampopo doesn’t transcend that, the film is never overshadowed by those qualities.
Tampopo is so much about filmmaking, but is also an examination of how our work is an extension of ourselves to others. While Tampopo the character may not have a lifelong passion for ramen, she is the type of person who is willing to do her homework, to accept help from others, and to follow through with her goals. She becomes better by being consistent, by listening to others, and by developing her own taste. The film tracks this quite gradually. Tampopo is never suddenly great. She never has one single gimmick that shows that she has natural talent. The greatest trick of Tampopo is making something so believable and unremarkable so deeply cinematic. Tampopo may not romanticize process, or portray trial and error as easy and endurable, but is always unfailingly captivating.