Japan wasn’t always a foodie paradise, with more Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo than Paris. In the poverty-stricken early postwar years, many Japanese were struggling to fill their bellies, with taste a secondary consideration. But by the mid-1980s Japan was becoming an economic superpower and even ordinary corporate drones had the means to cultivate their inner gourmets.
Released in Japan in 1985, Itami Juzo’s comedy Tampopo satirizes the era’s gurume bumu (“gourmet boom”), especially the fetishizing of ramen, once a humble noodle bowl mostly made and consumed by men in tiny grubby shops or at open-air stalls and carts. A flop at the Japanese box office, the film became a popular and critical success abroad, boosting Itami into the small circle of Japanese directors with international cachet.
By contrast, Itami’s first film The Funeral (1984), which targeted the Japanese funeral industry, became an indie hit while sweeping domestic awards. Tampopo and The Funeral take a similar approach to comedy, with biting observational gags about current social trends and multiple spot-on references to Hollywood films. Also, though more intellectual than the Japanese comic norm, both films are intended as easily digestible entertainment, not hard-to-swallow art. Itami, a master promoter of his own work, referred to Tampopo as a “noodle Western,” a nod to the Italian “spaghetti Westerns” then so popular in Japan.
So why Tampopo failed to connect with local audiences is something of a mystery, though more than three decades later the film looks prescient and still relevant. Its characters ‘ obsession with food in general and ramen in particular has long since spread beyond Japan, while insinuating itself into mainstream Western culture. Meanwhile, the foodie movie genre that Tampopo helped pioneer has become a Japanese movie industry mainstay, though Tampopo’s style of free-ranging comedy is now seldom found.
The story has the set-up of a classic Western: a square-jawed hero, Goro (Yamazaki Tsutomu), and his young sidekick Gon (Watanabe Ken) come to the rescue of a widow (Miyamoto Nobuko) with a young child menaced by a gang of desperadoes. But though Goro wears a cowboy hat he and Gon are trucker drivers, not cowhands. And the widow, Tampopo, is running a ramen joint, not a ranch. Finally the gang, led by the burly Pisken (Yasuoka Rikiya), are her customers. Goro loses a fistfight with Pisken and his henchmen, but when he tells Tampopo her noodles need improvement, she listens – and asks him to be her teacher. The good-hearted Goro agrees and vows to make her shop a success.
Thus begins Tampopo’s long apprenticeship in the art of ramen. Along the way she not only learns (and steals) tricks of the trade from rivals, but acquires an advisory committee of noodle sensei (“masters”), including an elderly homeless guy, a rich man’s chauffeur and even Pisken, who gives Tampopo his secret recipe. This may sound like a retrograde “male saviors of a helpless woman” narrative, but Tampopo is a scrappy, resourceful type determined to make Goro and the other sensei drink her ramen broth to the last delicious drop.
While telling this zero-to-hero story, Itami inserts an array of hilarious comic vignettes, as well as a subplot about the affair of a dandyish gangster (Yakusho Koji) and his luscious girlfriend who mix food with Eros at every opportunity. Who knew an egg yolk could serve as a sex toy? One of Tampopo’s many revelations and still funny delights.
Born in Kyoto in 1933, Itami Juzo was the son of director Itami Mansaku (1900-1946). After establishing himself as an actor, Itami released his first feature as a director, The Funeral, a satire on the Japanese way of death, in 1984. He followed up with Tampopo (1985), and the hit crime comedies A Taxing Woman (1987) and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988). After the release of his gang comedy Minbo (1992) Itami was attacked and nearly killed by gangsters. He recovered but following a tabloid magazine’s expose of his alleged affair with a younger woman he fell from the roof of his office building and died on December 20, 1997. Rumors persist that this act was not a suicide, but Japanese police have yet to treat his death as a possible homicide.
1984 – The Funeral
1985 – Tampopo
1987 – A Taxing Woman
1988 – A Taxing Woman’s Return
1990 – Tales of a Golden Geisha
1992 – Minbo
1993 – Daibyonin
1995 – A Quiet Life
1996 – Supermarket Woman
1997 – Woman in Witness Protection