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Review: Tampopo

Dragged myself out of bed this morning and made my way over to the Film Forum (the same venue where I saw Chimes At Midnight earlier this year) to catch a screening of Tampopo, a 1985 Japanese comedy I’ve been trying to track down through legitimate channels for a while now. It did not disappoint. It follows the basic formula of the classic Western, but instead of a lone gunslinger, we get a curiously multi-talented truck driver; instead of oppressed ranchers, we get a single mother desperately struggling to keep her late husband’s noodle shop afloat; and instead of fighting off marauding bandits, our hero makes it his mission to teach the woman how to make the perfect serving of ramen. 

Reducing Tampopo to the bare bones plot doesn’t really do it justice, though; the movie goes off on so many wonderfully bizarre tangents that it’s more like a culinary tour of 1980s Japan, where tradition and modernization/Westernization intermingle (best shown in an extended interlude set in a French-style restaurant, where a group of businessmen are too proud to admit that they can’t read the menu). Thankfully, despite all its jumping around, Tampopo never feels unfocused, largely because the filmmakers find ways to transition organically from one sketch to the next. For example, that group of businessmen intrudes on a scene already in progress, and the camera unexpectedly stays with them through their bit in the French restaurant. Just as the gag is getting old, we follow their waiter into the main dining area, where a group of refined Japanese ladies are learning “proper” Western table etiquette. Then another waiter walks through the frame… and so on, until the action reconnects with the main plot line. 

All of which makes Tampopo a fascinating, funny, and unpredictable journey. Janus handled the gorgeous restoration, so I’m looking forward to owning the Criterion home video release, hopefully sooner rather than later.

[Originally written October 22, 2016.]

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