Think of the movies you’ve seen that have made you soooo hungry: Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Before them all came Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s 1985 comedy about all the ways food activates our senses and inflames our desires. A surprise art-house hit after a Roger Ebert rave brought it to the attention of American audiences, Tampopo still stands up 30 years later as a weird, mouthwatering masterpiece. The Criterion Collection and Janus Films have given the movie a restoration as bright as the sheen of fat glistening on the surface of a great bowl of ramen. (The restored film screens starting Friday at Film Forum in New York and should expand elsewhere shortly.*) If Tampopo is playing near you this fall, gather a group of friends who love to eat, go out to the theater, and make yourself a reservation at your local ramen joint for immediately afterward. You’ll need it.
Itami, a well-known actor in Japan, started writing and directing his own films in his 40s; like all his movies, Tampopo stars his wife and muse, Nobuko Miyamoto. Miyamoto plays the eponymous Tampopo, a Tokyo widow who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen shop afloat. Her fortunes change when through her front door saunters trucker/gastronome Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who declares Tampopo’s ramen dull and pledges to help her learn the secret of delicious noodle soup.
Tampopo was cannily marketed as a “noodle Western,” and there’s more than a touch of the lone cowboy to Goro; eventually, he’s joined by a band of ramen ronin (including a very, very young Ken Watanabe) who whip Tampopo, and her shop, into shape. But the fun of the movie lies not in its fealty to one genre but in its gleeful embrace of all the genres, from madcap farce to dark comedy to erotic drama to kung-fu action. The training montages and inspirational speeches of Tampopo’s quest for the perfect bowl of ramen are interrupted again and again by a series of bright sketches, none of them having much to do with the main plotline but each one cleverly illuminating an aspect of humans’ relationship with the food that sustains us. A junior executive shows up his superiors with his expertise at a French restaurant; an etiquette class is disrupted by a noodle-slurping diner; a dying mother rouses herself to make one final dinner for her desperate family.
A series of odd, erotic, and funny scenes feature a gangster and his moll exploring food as sexual aid in ever more absurd fashion: a breast dipped in whipped cream, a live shrimp skittering across her stomach, and finally an egg yolk exchanged from mouth to mouth until the lovers reach a very messy conclusion. (The gangster gourmand is a great comic creation, but feels a bit bittersweet now; Itami was hounded by the Japanese mob after his 1992 movie Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, and many believe his 1997 “suicide” was actually a murder by yakuza thugs.)
Through it all, Itami maintains his infatuation with the sensual and emotional pleasures of a meal well-made, from the fried rice pancakes a homeless tramp whips up while trespassing in a fancy hotel kitchen to the hibachi-grilled meat Tampopo and Goro wrap in lettuce at a celebratory dinner. “You helped me find my ladder,” Tampopo tells him, and the sentiment underlines the fact that this is the rare film about a single woman in which true love is not her endgame. Though Goro pines from afar, Tampopo is laser-focused on making her small business a success, and her most romantic scene comes when she swoons at the two strapping gents discussing the proper height and depth for the service counter in her renovated restaurant.
A good noodle cook, Goro tells Tampopo, looks carefully at his customers’ bowls when they leave the shop. If there’s broth left at the bottom, the ramen is a failure, no matter how elegantly it assembles its basic components of broth, noodles, pork, sprouts, and scallions. The messy, silly, sexy Tampopo doesn’t embrace that spirit of simplicity; Itami piles every ingredient imaginable into his bowl, but who cares? It’s delicious, and you’ll slurp up every bite.
Update, Oct. 20: This article has been updated to include details on where the film is screening. (Return.)