July 12, 2020

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A recipe for cinematic nourishment

Re-release of Japanese 'ramen western' will leave you hungry for more

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/1/2017 (1282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If looking ahead to 2017 seems daunting, try looking back to 1985 with Cinematheque’s screening of the re-released Japanese comedy Tampopo.

The original "ramen western" — it’s been described as "Shane with noodles" — Tampopo is one of the great food films, its dizzy deliciousness pre-dating our addiction to the Food Network, celebrity chefs and exquisite plating.

For live-to-eat types, Japanese director Juzo Itami elevates the obsessive production and ecstatic consumption of food to erotic levels. In one scene, a ramen master advises his callow disciple to "caress the ramen" before digging in; in another, a gangster and his lover have a NSFW encounter involving egg yolks.

For eat-to-live people, the food metaphors soon open up to tackle fundamental issues of life, death, sex and art.

For everyone, this fourth-wall-busting postmodern romp offers up a bowlful of bawdy, hungry, funny filmmaking.

Itami died in 1997 at age 64 after making 10 films in 13 years, and his work has often been hard to find, not just in the West but in his native Japan. This 4K restoration of Tampopo offers improved colour, clearer sound and more precise English subtitles.

CINEMATHEQUE</p><p>Tampopo is about a pair of truck drivers who are determined to turn a so-so café into the best ramen restaurant in town.</p></p>

CINEMATHEQUE

Tampopo is about a pair of truck drivers who are determined to turn a so-so café into the best ramen restaurant in town.

Itami’s cinematic soup is a slurpy and slightly deranged mix of the western, the silent-era comedy, the gangster flick, the makeover movie and a romance. Itami satirizes Hollywood genres with comic glee — he gives us a Rocky-style ramen-making training montage, for example — while raising serious questions about Japan’s cultural relationship with the West.

Tampopo’s main story involves two roving truck drivers, Gun (a very young Ken Watanabe) and Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a laconic loner who always wears a cowboy hat, even in the bath. Arriving in a side-street noodle joint run by a widow named Tampopo (played by Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife and frequent collaborator), Gun looks around and says, "I have a bad feeling about this."

He’s referencing not the room’s hostile atmosphere, which does in fact suggest the dusty denizens of an Old West saloon sizing up the new gunslingers, but a pressing culinary problem: Tampopo’s water isn’t boiling when the noodles go in.

Tampopo’s soup is "sincere" but lacks conviction, according to Goro, who becomes determined to transform the so-so café into the best ramen restaurant in town. This epic undertaking involves luck, guile and outright industrial espionage, as well as the comic recruitment of a broth expert and a noodle specialist.

The restaurant saga is the main dish, but Itami also serves up several subplots as amuse-bouches. A character will wander into the frame of one story and then be followed out into some new, strange sidetrack.

In one scene, a dying woman rises from her deathbed to cook one last meal for her family. In an odd but rather aimless little escapade, a public food fondler squeezes peaches and pokes cheese as a grocer stalks her, trying to catch her in the act. In another perfect sequence, a homeless chef breaks into a restaurant to cook up a simple rice omelette.

All these strands centre on food — as nourishment, as pleasure, as cultural signifier — and all are united by Itami’s expansive, affectionate outlook and sharp, nimble eye. In Tampopo, the cinematic ingredients work together, well, like good ramen.

Go in knowing that you’ll leave hungry. In fact, you might want to go for a double bill with a ramen-centric meal, maybe at Yujiro, Kazoku or Dwarf no Cachette.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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