Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is perhaps sadly destined to be forever overshadowed by its own reputation as the greatest food porn movie ever made. It’s tragic because behind all the luscious close-ups of scrumptious food is one of the most gleefully unconventional, joyfully anarchic, and thoroughly original films of the 1980s. Not that it’s easy to tear oneself away from the food; Itami’s ode to epicurean excess features some of the most lip-smacking, drool-inducing images of food ever committed to celluloid—huge pots of gurgling broth, bowls of piping hot noodles, glistening rice omelets, and seafood so fresh it bites back.
Itami made the unusual decision to hire a full-time on-set food stylist responsible for all the dishes presented onscreen, and every single shot feels like an apotheosis. We don’t just see bowls of ramen; we see the bowels of ramen every other bowl of ramen dreams of becoming. How could there ever be a more perfect plate of spaghetti? A better ice cream cone? In one scene a group of hobo sommeliers describe tasting the best wine they’ve ever had. And though we only hear their descriptions of the taste, the body, the sensation of the fermented grapes slipping down their throats, we feel like we’ve had a sip, too. And how could any other vintage hope to compare ever again?
But it’s important to acknowledge the crazed creative abandon with which Itami threw himself into the production. At many points the film borders on the experimental. Consider the plot. Described by Itami himself as a cross between George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and ramen, the film follows two truck drivers named Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) who roll into town, discover a down-on-her-luck single mother, and help her revitalize her deceased husband’s ramen shop. They teach her all the tricks and tools of the ramen trade, enlisting a strange group of assistants who all help her improve different aspects of the dish. One takes her on undercover missions to spy on how other shops make their broth. Another their noodles. Along the way they help her fight off a belligerent suitor (who later joins their side and renovates the shop’s interior), aid her young son fight back against bullies, and inspire in her a new zeal both for life and cooking before driving away into the metaphorical sunset. Itami does more than borrow the narrative tropes of the Western genre, he liberally peppers the film with imagery and shot compositions ripped straight from the world of John Ford and Sergio Leone. Take Gorō: he wears a cowboy hat and drives a truck with a gigantic pair of steer horns. All he’s missing to jump onto a Howard Hawks set is a pair of six-shooters.
Curiously, Itami repeatedly shifts his camera away from the main story to feature completely unrelated vignettes all having to do with food. Some are tragic—a housewife on the brink of death summons the strength to cook one more dinner for her family before dying. Some are funny—an etiquette class for teaching young Japanese women how to properly eat spaghetti gets interrupted by a noisy foreigner. And some are just odd—a nighttime grocery store attendant chases an elderly woman obsessed with squeezing the food. The most famous involve two reoccurring characters, a white-suited gangster and his girlfriend, who consummate their love metaphorically and literally through food. When the gangster gets shot and lays dying, his last words to his girlfriend is the perfect recipe for sausage: kill a wild boar in the midst of winter when they gorge themselves on yams, butcher them on the spot, and roast the yam-stuffed intestines. Some may consider these scenes charming yet distracting flights of fancy. But they’re integral to constructing Itami’s fantasy world where food has replaced most, if not all, other forms of personal expression, methods of leisure, and outlets for disposable income. If the worlds created by Hollywood musicals assumed that anybody and everybody could sing and dance at a moment’s notice, Itami assumes the same of the everyman’s ability to not just cook, to not just appreciate good food, but to demand good cooking.
It’s rare to find a Blu-ray release that successfully channels the giggling enthusiasm of its feature film. But the Criterion Collection’s new release of the film is certainly one of them. The release is packed with short documentary features, a 90-minute making-of film, and interviews with cast and crew. It even includes Itami’s first short film Rubber Band Pistol (1962). Although, while much appreciated by cinephiles, it’s doubtful whether the average viewer will find much use for the short, a deliberately decentralized, deliberately rambling examination of a bunch of teenage friends as they escape real life by hanging out together. (Connoisseurs of the Japanese New Wave will recognize echoes of Shohei Imamura’s claustrophobic camerawork and Nagisa Oshima’s breezy spontaneity.)
There are some Blu-rays you buy because you love a movie. There are others you buy because you feel it important to have certain important films in your library. Either excuse works for Criterion’s Tampopo. Consider it an essential purchase. The only thing it’s missing? A step-by-step guide on how to cook the omurice featured in the film. But I guess that’s what youtube is for…