Ben Pinsent tucks into Criterion’s Blu Ray release of Juzo Itami’s cult Ramen-Western, Tampopo
Thanks to the globalisation of the world in recent years, we have been able to experience other cultures, whether that be through films and TV shows that have been made available over internet streaming sites, or the food that has been made by immigrants in restaurants or passionate amateurs at home using cookbooks. One of the cultures that has gained mass appeal in England and the West is Japan, with the rise in anime fans, as well as connoisseurs of Japanese cinema and cuisine. One film that combines film and food perfectly is Juzo Irami’s 1985 film Tampopo, marketed as a “ramen western”, being released on Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection at the beginning of May. So the question becomes, does this subtle blend of western tropes, Ramen and comedy make for a satisfying experience or is Tompopo a dubious mix of things that don’t quite go together. I apologise in advance for the food puns.
Set around a small ramen shop, this film follows Tampopo on her quest to make the perfect bowl of ramen. This quest is aided by a cast of colourful characters; a cowboy trucker, a homeless gourmet, a valet, a drunk construction worker, and a young Ken Watanabe. Though this is just the entree, Tampopo also has some wonderful pallet cleansing vignettes about how people relate to food; including a gangster and his lover eating eggs, a lowly employee showing his knowledge of food, and an old lady fondling food incredibly roughly.
Despite being made up of a load of different parts that shouldn’t go together this unique story is wonderfully constructed. There is the main narrative of Tampopo and her shop, but there are strange asides that all deal with humanity’s appetites for food and for … other things. We watch the little triumphs and tragedies that revolve around food, all with a slightly absurd bent to them that is wonderfully entertaining. In these stories, Juzo Itami shows his understanding of human nature and shows it to us through his own particular lens.
For a film about food, Tampopo has some mouthwatering cinematography. All of the food, if it is supposed to, looks amazing. The use of colour on every detail from the food itself to the crockery is masterful, especially when it comes to the most famous scene when a gangster and his lover pass an egg yolk back and forth in their mouths.
However, underpinning the skill Juzo Itami and his team display in the way the film is constructed and made, is a fantastically talented cast of actors playing these weird characters. Nobuko Miyamoto is Tampopo, the aspiring chef, and she is played with such subtlety and sympathy that the audience gets a little tearful when at the end of the film she succeeds in her quest for the best ramen. It is actually a relatable story, a quest to better yourself, and because Tampopo is played so well, with her quiet strength, hopes and humour we feel inspired to pursue our own passions. Tsutomu Yamazaki’s Goro is a typical western hero, he is tough, silent and strong, but something that makes him stand out is his passion for food, especially ramen. This strange dichotomy is amazingly balanced by Yamazaki’s tough exterior and lovable demeanour.
Indeed all of the characters have this odd duality and it is very refreshing, especially when we see their passion for food; even the smallest part is filled with a memorable performance, from stuffy executives to a spaghetti-slurping Italian man. Every actor in Tampopo is a wonder to behold, and I wish that I could have spent more time with each and everyone of them.
Tampopo is a wonderful hidden gem of Japanese cinema; I am so glad that Criterion are giving us this long overlooked satire and it is finally getting the HD treatment it deserves.
Being a Criterion release, Tampopo’s mechanics are up to their usual standard. The menus are easy to navigate, and the subtitles are clear to read. I would say that there is a little difficulty during one of the film’s extras when the subtitles do suffer minor visual glitches early on, but this doesn’t return nor is it on any other part of the disc.
The film is presented in a 4k digital restoration, and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, which having no digital or analogue errors makes the shots of food that much more mouth watering.
Criterion have done a fantastic job in bringing Tampopo to Blu Ray like they have on their other releases, and I am sure that they will continue to be a big name in quality movies on quality discs.
The list of extras contained on this disc are just as eclectic as the main feature itself.
The Making of “Tampopo.”
This feature length documentary narrated by director Juzo Itami details every part of the production of Tampopo, from casting, to costume, to the food and sound mixing. It is a great look into the way Itami makes and views movies.
Interview with Actor Nokubo Miyamoto
The actor who plays Tampopo talks about her husband Juzo Itami, the part that launched her into stardom as well as the different reactions to the film at home and abroad.
Interview with Food Stylist Hiroshi Osaki
An aspect of film or TV that is often ignored despite the copious amounts of food adverts, Hiroshi Osaki shares her on-set stories with us and talks about the process of making food to tell stories; it is strangely fascinating and appetising at the same time.
The Perfect Bowl: Interviews with Hiroshi Osaki (Ramen Scholar), Sam White, Rayneil De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich and Ivan Orkin (American Ramen Chefs) about the film Tampopo
These are legacy interviews with people that were affected by Tampopo enough to chase the dream of opening their own ramen shop. They detail how her efforts inspired them to strive. A sweet inclusion to the disc that shows how influential film and food can be. It also goes into the craft of ramen making that ordinary people don’t see very often
Rubber Band Pistol
Juzo Itami’s 1962 short film is his directorial debut and exhibits a masterful approach to the craft despite his seeming inexperience. It is a series of snapshots in the lives of a group of friends and is made with another genre-bending mix of comedy and French new-wave. Rubber Band Pistol definitely has hints of what Itami would be later on.
Video Essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos on Tampopo
Better known for their work on the Youtube channel, Every Frame a Painting, the pair of video-essayists extraordinary bring their unique insight into the way that this movie can be viewed and interpreted. An excellent addition to the disc and I hope to hear them again on more releases.
Tampopo is a bizarre film. A combination of Japanese food and Western film tropes that mix to create a vibrant and unique flavour. I whole-heartily enjoyed my time in Tampopo’s restaurant, it has great food, a great atmosphere and wonderful characters and with the great extras that enhance the experience I would highly recommend that you visit, you may never want to leave.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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