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In this humorous paean to the joys of food, the main story is about trucker Goro, who rides into town like a modern Shane to help Tampopo set up the perfect noodle soup restaurant. Woven into this main story are a number of smaller stories about the importance of food, ranging from a gangster who mixes hot sex with food, to an old woman who terrorizes a shopkeeper by compulsively squeezing his wares. Written by
There are any number of very funny scenes in this lightly plotted and highly episodic romantic comedy from acclaimed Japanese director Juzo Itami. You may recall him as the guy who got in trouble with the Yakuza, the Japanese "mafia," because they didn't like the way he made fun of them in Minbo no onna (1992). You may also know that he committed suicide at the age of 64 in 1997 after being accused of adultery. He is the son of samurai film maker Mansaku Itami. I mention this since one of the things satirized here are samurai films.
But--and perhaps this is the secret of Itami's success both in Japan and elsewhere--the satire is done with a light, almost loving touch. Even though he also takes dead aim at spaghetti westerns and the Japanese love affair with food, especially their predilection for fast food noodle soup, at no time is there any rancor or ugliness in his treatment.
If you've seen any Itami film you will be familiar with his star, his widow, Nobuko Miyamoto, she of the very expressive face, who is perhaps best known for her role as the spirited tax collector in Itami's The Taxing Woman (1987) and The Taxing Woman Returns (1988). She has appeared in all of his films. Here she is Tampopo ("Dandelion"), a not entirely successful proprietor of a noodle restaurant. Along comes not Jones but Tsutmu Yamazaki as Goro, a kind of true grit, but big-hearted Japanese urban cowboy. He ambles up to the noodle bar and before long establishes himself as a kind of John Wayne hero intent on teaching Tampopo how the good stuff is made. Along the way Itami makes fun of stuffy bureaucrats, macho Japanese males, heroic death scenes, Japanese princesses attempting to acquire a European eating style, movie fight scenes, and God knows what else.
The comedy is bizarre at times. The sexual exchange of an egg yoke between the man in the white suit (Koji Yakusho) and his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) might make you laugh or it might just gross you out. The enthusiastic description of the "yam sausages" from inside a wild boar is strange. Surely one is not salivating at such an entre, but one can imagine that such a "delicacy" might surely exist and have its devotees.
Indeed an Itami film has a kind of logic all its own. An exemplary scene is that of the stressed and dying mother of two young children, who is ordered by her husband to "Get up and cook!" This (reasonably relevant) scene is juxtaposed with the one with the college professor which is about being and getting ripped off--which seems to have little to do with the rest of the movie, yet somehow seems appropriate, perhaps only because they are at a restaurant. Another typical Itami scene is the businessmen at supper. They hem and haw until their chief orders and then they all pretend to debate and consider, and then order exactly the same thing except for one brash young guy who dazzles (and embarrasses) the old sycophantic guys by order a massive meal in French with all the trimmings.
The climax of the film comes with plenty of musical fanfare. As Goro and others sit down at the counter, they are served Tampopo's final culinary creation, the noodle soup now hopefully honed to perfection. As the tension mounts, a musical accompaniment, reminiscent of something like the clock ticking in High Noon (1952), rises to a crescendo. All the while Tampopo sweats and frets and prays that she will triumph, which will be in evidence if, and only if, they drain their soup bowls! (Do they?)
The final credits roll (after some further misdirections and some further burlesque) over a most endearing and ultimately touching shot of a young mother with a beautiful and contented infant feeding at her breast.
Perhaps this was Itami's best film.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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