Review: Tampopo (1985)
Highly inventive and wildly hilarious, Tampopo is a true concoction of wit, mischief and playfulness. Beautifully restored in all its 4K glory, the meat of this ramen western is found in the travails of Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who, in looking to rescue her failing ramen business, enlists the help of a brusque truck driver, Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki) and his sidekick, Gun (Ken Watanabe). Their unorthodox methods provide much room for comedy, from tasting discarded noodles out of a trash can to peeping on their competitors’ broth making process. Along the way, they recruit a bunch of unlikely compatriots - a wizened food guru known as sensei, a bearish contractor with a crush on Tampopo, and a jovial chauffeur-chef.

Tampopo is a film which unabashedly disregards narrative structure, happily straying away from the main storyline every so often to morph into an absurd, yet enthralling, concoction of short stories. Itami readily borrows from a variety of influences, invoking chuckles as Goro and his sidekicks saunter across the frame with a John Wayne swagger, introducing us to a ragtag bunch of vagabonds loosely resembling the Lost Boys, and even tugging at our heartstrings in a Charlie Chaplin-esque sequence where, accompanied by orchestral soundtrack, one of the nomads whips up a hearty dish of omurice for Tampopo’s young son. Others have pointed out the influence of Buñuel in the class delineation scene where a junior executive upstages his clueless bosses by accurately ordering a spread of dishes at an upscale French restaurant.

These stories constitute an enticing variety of side dishes, if you will, and I am easily charmed by Itami to indulge in these curious treats. In fact, they prove so enjoyable that I am sometimes disappointed when we return to the main course of the ramen perfecting process. I admire the carefree way in which Itami cooks up this delightful mix of stories, free from constraints and limits, yet without ever losing his intentionality and ingenuity.

This is a film you definitely have to watch with a crowd, as the collective laughter only adds on to the fun. In particular, the erotically charged scenes between a flashy gangster and his sultry lover deserve a shout-out all on its own. Here, the food fetish is played up to an outrageous degree, culminating in the iconic scene of the two lovers suggestively passing an egg yolk between their mouths and eliciting incredulous laughter all across the room. A guy behind me rakes up a comment: “poor gudetama”. Unable to suppress our laughter, our heads swivel toward him, offering our affirmation of how ridiculous the scene really is.

Moreover, the close-ups of food only serve to elicit envious groans and dreamy sighs from everyone. While ramen is clearly the star here, the co-stars pull their own weight, from steaming Chinese dumplings to delectable homemade fried rice. A particularly memorable scene would be the making of the omurice, where audible gasps ripple throughout the audience as the piping hot omelette is gently laid over a bed of rice and delicately sliced, before spilling beautifully all over the rice.

It is with great gusto then, that my fellow film comrades and I eventually march off to the nearest ramen shop after the screening. Tampopo has certainly whet my appetite for more offerings from Itami, and I am sure that it will prove to be enduringly funny through the ages, a true mainstay on the menu.

Tampopo was screened as part of the Asian Restored Classics 2018.

Written by Jessica Heng
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