Monday, October 17, 2016

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

We call any old instant noodles ramen here in the West, but in Japan, there are very definite rules as to what constitutes ramen and how it should be prepared. It is a deceptively simple but nourishing dish, like many great Japanese films. When it released in 1985, it launched the culinary movie trend best represented by the likes of Babette’s Feast, Le Grand Chef, and Eat Drink Man Woman. It also predates the other great “noodle neo-western,” A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop. You will learn to respect and crave ramen in Juzo Itami’s newly 4K-restored Tampopo (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

While his partner Gorō drives, Gun reads a book of ramen reminisces that makes both of them hungry. Fatefully, they stop at Tampopo’s ramen restaurant. Frankly, her ramen is not very good, but Gorō rather enjoys her company. In fact, when a thuggish contractor creates a scene, Gorō two-fistedly settles it outside, despite being out-numbered. Thus, an ambiguously romantic friendship is born between Tampopo and her champion. As an unlikely ramen expert, he also starts coaching her in ways to improve her noodles and broth. Soon, he recruits a rag-tag team of specialists to lend their particular expertise and eccentricity.

In between Tampopo’s worst-to-first campaign, Itami intersperses loopy food-related interludes, including a scene involving a grocer stalking a serial produce-squeezer that plays like a send-up of the supermarket scene in Stallone’s Cobra, except Tampopo predates that film as well. Periodically, Itami returns to an unnamed Yakuza in hiding with his lover, whom he sexually relates to through food.

Like so many of the foodie movies that followed it, Tampopo definitely uses food as a metaphor for life and love. However, few films are as willing to be as randomly goofy as Itami’s ramen opera. Clearly, there are things that happen solely because Itami thought they were funny—which they were and still are. Arguably, he raises silliness to a high art form. It is hard to imagine a film like this making it through focus groups and studio note-writing screenings today, so it is enormously refreshing to have it back again.

Amid all the lunacy, Itami’s wife and muse Nobuko Miyamoto shines like an Ozu heroine as the title noodle purveyor. Tsutomu Yamazaki is wonderfully sly and hardnosed as Gorō, like a vintage Clint Eastwood. A ridiculously young looking Ken Watanabe adds earnest vigor as Gun, while a relatively youthful Kôji Yakusho becomes the symbolic face of the film as the Yakuza in the white suit. In fact, Tampopo is absolutely bursting at the seams with fine supporting performances, in both the main narrative and the periodic interludes.

You just can’t see films like this anymore, because screenwriters now all read the same books that tell them how to structure a script, literally beat-for-beat. Tampopo breaks all the rules and it is a much richer viewing experience as a result. The humor is often outrageous, but it holds up quite well over the years and crossing cultures. It is funny, but it is also acutely human. Indeed, there are good reasons why so many ramen restaurants were renamed “Tampopo” after the film released internationally. Highly recommended for culinary movie fans and Nipponophiles, the 4K restoration of Tampopo opens this Friday (10/21) in New York, at Film Forum.