In many instances a film has a reputation that precedes itself, often getting mentioned within circles of those in the "cinematic know" if you will. These movies are exceptional and for many reasons fail to make it into the traditional top 100 film lists that flood a burgeoning cinephiles exploration. For a long time one such film for me was that of Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, easily one of the greatest achievements in cinema, despite for some time only being witnessed by a handful of film students, becoming an excellent reference in one of my favorite films of all time. Other films, like House becoming a point of reference due to their sheer inconceivability, while also being a thoroughly enjoyable film. It is perfectly balanced between these two lines that we find a film like Juzo Itami's Tampopo, with its surrealist concern for deconstructed linear narrative being paired so well with classicist cinematic stylings. I would venture to say that Tampopo in all its zany and incomparable antics exists with such a concern for the sensory that it is much like the food varied and depicted throughout. Where my uncertainty with something like Tampopo lies is when describing its cinematic intentions, considering that it manages to be both a light-hearted pseudo-romantic comedy, while also being a biting critique of the effects of patriarchal tradition and Western influences on a Japan, that at the time, was still attempting to assure its grounding on a global scale. The film also exists within the realm of the meta, allowing for viewer to become engaged with a drawn out depiction of urban Japan, while also considering the very intimate experiences of a somewhat definable protagonist, or in this case group of protagonists, yet the late Itami is careful not to leave too much certainty with any character, often taking the the viewer's assumptions averting and reverting them throughout. Tampopo is a film that could be viewed differently and rewardingly every time, always changing and hopefully evolving, not much different than the way one's tastes change from youth to old age.
Tampopo begins with a direct addressing to the audience by a sly and aggressive Yakuza member simply referred to as Man In The White Suit (Koji Yakusho) who demands that all those viewing the film should avoid eating during the movie, as not to cause teh narrative to become inaudible over crunching and mastication, of course, this man will reappear throughout the narrative, apparently existing within and outside of the cinematic space simultaneously. Other minor stories fill in the blanks, whether they be the Man and his erotic consumption of food with his lover, or a set of Japanese business man looking perplexed at the menu in a French restaurant, only to be educated by a younger member. Yet another narrative focuses on the false notions of Western eating etiquette, while yet another considers an old woman entering a gourmet shop only to squeeze and destroy various foods much to the chagrin of the employee on duty. However, the larger narrative focuses on milk truck drivers Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) who decide to stop into a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop after a night of driving and reading about the art of noodle eating. However, the shop they decide to stop in is run by the widowed Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) whose lack of a husband as a guide has led to her flailing business, as well as a disconnection from her son who is repeatedly bullied at school. Tampopo is not void of her own dealing with tough individuals and is confronted constantly by the drunk Pisuken (Rikia Yasuoka). Goro attempts to divert the aggression of Pisuken only to be beat up in the process, leading to his being awoken the next day by Tampopo to food and a frank discussion of her inability to cook noodles. Realizing the truth in his statement Tampopo begs Goro to help her excel at the craft, something he agrees to wholeheartedly, thus beginning their journey through the Japanese urban landscape to create a hybrid of all the secrets relating to the art of noodle cooking. This journey takes Tampopo, Goro and a variety of other characters from the world of Japanese decadence to the slums of the city, each providing a necessary element to the larger art of running a noodle shop. in the process Tampopo and Goro become romantically involved, Tampopo's son confronts his bullies and even Pisuken comes around to joining the cause, making an assumed success out of a once flailing business. The film then closes on a shot that suggests that the love of consumption starts at an incredibly young age.
Tampopo runs in the same vein as a Monty Python sketch film, say Meaning of Life to be exact, but manages to somehow carry the philosophical and political levity of something like Godard's Weekend. I absolutely loved Tampopo as a piece of cinema and want to make note of some of its more clever social critiques, however, I was by no means blinded by some of its egregious issues, for which I plan to mention as well. Firstly, Tampopo is a film expressly concerned with intersectionality, whether various intersections allow for one to gain or lose respect in a society. For example, it is not only a point of failure that Tampopo's son is of a lower-class status, but his lack of a paternal figure causes him to be ridiculed as well. In opposition, would be somebody from the group of businessmen eating French cuisine, so involved in their world of masculine, wealthy privilege that they completely ignore Goro and Tampopo on the street, nearly trampling them in the process. Even in this privilege, however, the group refuses to acknowledge ignorance, or in this case their own "otherness" in regards to a Western ideal, blindly following one of the groups orders for salad, soup and a beer. The film also takes note to mention the idea that enlightenment and knowledge are not synonymous with wealth or power, especially considering that the homeless individuals are much more finely tuned to the niceties of life than any other character, white suit donning Yakuza excluded. Finally, the film also considers the tragedy related to aging in East Asian countries and the manner with which elderly individuals are relegated to the corners of society, something just addressed in Ann Hui's A Simple Life a film I blogged about last week. In fact, the only real failing of identities within Tampopo appears to come with the title character herself, while it is great that she is able to find her place in a mad urban landscape, the narrative does suggest that she is only able to do so with the help of a bevy of masculine figures, completely discounting the earnest efforts she has made, while also adhering to every domestic role imaginable. Essentially she is both housewife and breadwinner and the narrative seems hesitant to make note of this fact, although, its closing does seem to suggest that all power comes from the feminine, so a complete dismissal is far from appropriate.
Key Scene: There is an excellent homage to Chaplin about midway through the film that is hilarious and poetic in its simplicity, and proves to be one of many highlights in the stellar work.
This is a must own for anybody who enjoys cinema and while it is certainly not the cheapest thing ever it will prove a great investment for years to come.