Noodles and canoodles

Satisfying a variety of life’s appetites

Published: Jan 26 2017, 01:01:am

Tuesday, September 8, 1987.
TAMPOPO (Dandelion). Music by Kunihiko Murai. Food design by Isumi Ishimori. Co-produced, written and directed by Jûzô Itami Running time: 112 minutes. Mature entertainment  with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional violence, nudity and suggestive scenes. In Japanese with English subtitles.

IT’S ALL A MATTER of tastes. And flavours. And appetites.
    It begins with writer-director Jûzô Itami holding up a mirror to his audience. Facing us is a screen’s-eye view of a cinema auditorium just before the lights go down.
    As an attractive young couple (Kôji Yakusho and Fukumi Kuroda) settle into their front-row seats, attendants set a table of artfully arranged viands before them. “So,” the male says, speaking directly to the camera, “you’re at the movies, too.
    “What are you eating?”
    For some people, food is just fuel. They eat rather than dine, regarding the whole process as an annoying, if necessary, interruption to the business of living.
    Tampopo, Itami’s delicious new film, is not for them. A multi-course sendup of movie genres, social mores and the Japanese craft tradition, it is first and foremost a gourmand’s delight.
    Contained within it is an action-comedy plot, the tale of Tampopo (Itami’s actress-wife Nobuko Miyamoto), the widow who operates the Lai Lai Noodle Bar. We meet her on the dark and stormy night that truckers Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) stop for a bite.
    Something of a mouse, Tampopo is taking abuse from her burly would-be boyfriend Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka) when strong, silent Gôro intervenes. Inspired by his Western-hero self-assurance and Eastern-master ramen knowledge, she begs him to stay and teach her how to be a “real noodle cook.”
    After setting the central story in motion, Itami allows his attention to wander. His camera drifts from a scene of Tampopo's training to follow a group of passing businessmen on their way to lunch in a luxury hotel.
    It goes with them into a private dining room for a comedy vignette in which they have to contend with menus written entirely in French. It then follows their waiter into another part of the restaurant where a group of well-dressed women are learning the proper European way to eat spaghetti.
    A room-service waiter passes, and we follow him into a suite where the couple from the film’s opening scene are enjoying themselves in some of the more intimate and sensual joys of cooking.
    Here, too, the subject is tastes,  flavours and appetites.
    A satirical appreciation of cuisine, this is a film that includes a major credit for “food design” (Izumi Ishimori). Offering symphonic stimulation to the taste buds, Tampopo leaves one hungry as well as entertained.    
     A gourmet cook himself, Itami takes advantage of palate pleasures to hold us enthralled throughout. Though his turtle scene is something of a shock, the egg-yolk interlude is a definite turn-on.
     A dental chair sequence is a bit of a wince, but his rice omelet incident is absolutely mouth watering.  Tampopo — the word means Dandelion — is a movie you shouldn’t see it on an empty stomach.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1987. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Creativity is a cumulative process. We know, for example, that the first great “spaghetti Western,” Italian director Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo. No surprise, then, that the Western-inflected Tampopo was described by many critics as a “noodle Western.” Unlike the Italians, though, the Japanese weren’t inclined to turn Jûzô Itami’s personal recipe into a film genre.
     Originally an actor — with roles in such international epics as Fifty-five Days at Peking (1963) and Lord Jim (1965) — Itami moved behind the camera in 1984 to write and direct a comedy called The Funeral. A social satirist, he gained overseas attention with Tampopo and 1987’s A Taxing Woman, his wry look at government bureaucracy. Not everybody could take a joke. Following the release of his 1992 feature Minbo, a film that made fun of the yakuza, he was beaten up by the Goto-gumi gang. Itami died in a fall from a roof in 1997, an apparent suicide. Shortly after, a former gang member gave an interview in which he claimed the filmmaker’s death had been a yakuza hit.      
    For more information on Tampopo’s 2017 Vancouver screenings, go to the Pacific Cinémathèque website.

See also: In 1974, Universal Studios explored the dramatic possibilities of an Earthquake  destroying Los Angeles.