First vagabond: You’re just in time. We just got our hands on some of Carlton’s boeuf bourguignon.
Second vagabond: It’s slightly burnt, so you can’t call it perfect.
First vagabond: (nods sympathetically) French cooking is a constant battle with burns.
In all the years I’ve been recommending this movie to friends, associates and people I bump into crossing 57th and trying to see where the hell Coliseum Books has moved to since the last time I took the train into this dump they call a city, I’ve never yet found an adequate way to describe Tampopo. It’s pretty easy to sell people on straightforward cinematic pleasures like Jaws and Apocalypse Now. But how can you categorize and describe a movie that segues from cowboy parody to erotica to kung fu epic to Charlie Chaplin to yakuza thriller and satire on Japanese family values, all wrapped around one woman’s quest to learn how to cook perfect ramen?
Unfortunately, no one can be told what Tampopo is. You have to see it for yourself.
According to the blurb on the DVD case, Tampopo is “a celebration of the role of food in Japanese culture.” This is, as far as it goes, perfectly true, and you could use that one line to summarize the movie if you really had to. Later in the conversation, you could also claim that Citizen Kane is a movie about the role of sleds in American culture, and that the Shining is a movie about writer’s block. Because there’s one thing I know for sure about this wildly entertaining, sweet and weird as hell movie by the man who directed A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman Returns (yeah, that’s what I said too): Tampopo’s underlying themes have very little to do with food except as a symbol.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerate a tiny bit. Food does play an important role, and dedicated foodies will find a lot to like. There’s a hell of a lot of good food in Tampopo - everything from classical French and Japanese cuisines to raw eggs and live prawns as both sexual aids and appetizers. And the story that ties the movie together is the tale of Tampopo, a lonely middle-aged divorcee who wants to improve her cooking and make her ramen restaurant a success. To this end she enlists a truck driver named Goro. Now, although most of the truck drivers I know are pretty good people, they tend to be the kind of guys who wear ratty old baseball caps with tobacco company logos on them and think nothing of pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle while driving late at night, guzzling down Big Macs at a truck stop in the early morning, unpacking your fine china and filling out your paperwork in the afternoon and shaking your hand goodbye without ever washing their hands. Goro, however, wears a cowboy hat, dresses sharp, lives by the cowboy code of honour and happens to be a wandering ramen connoisseur.
With a minor show of reluctance, Goro agrees to train Tampopo in Wooden Spoon Style, and when Tampopo turns out to be as inept as she is passionate about food, he takes her and her son to visit “The Old Master.” Of course, in the tradition of all the best kung fu, samurai, Western and Harry Potter movies, the master turns out to be an old homeless man, leader of a whole crew of photogenically rag-tag vagabonds with exquisitely developed palates. He is a kindly old man, with glasses as big as saucers and a winningly crooked smile, who will at the end of the movie admit, “I didn’t really think a woman could be a good ramen cook.” And if you think this doesn’t mean something, you haven’t been paying attention and you’re not invited to Hitchcock Night at my house anymore.
Six men in dark suits enter a private room in a gourmet restaurant. The first five are middle-aged executives, while the last is a bumbling young man who seems to be someone’s assistant. He is carrying everyone else’s attache cases, and making quite a mess of it.
The head waiter attempts to take the executives’ orders, and is frustrated at first by the men mumbling about not really being hungry, thinking about... well, maybe just a salad, not really sure... until the senior manager orders his meal.
“I’ll have the sole meuniere. Consomme, no salad. Maybe a beer. Heineken?”
“Very good, sir.”
The waiter goes on to the next executive, who quickly decides, “maybe I’ll try the sole, too. Consomme. No salad. And a beer.”
One by one, the remaining executives place the exact same order, each one taking a little less time to “decide”. Finally the waiter comes to the bumbling young assistant.
“And you, sir?”
“One moment.” He reads the menu carefully while the executives wait impatiently.
“So,” he murmurs, “you have quenelle... Boudin style.” Under the table, we see one of the executives kick the young man’s ankle, but he forges on. “That’s quenelle prepared in the shape of a sausage?”
“I think Taille-Vent in France serves this.” The executives are stunned. The waiter smiles appreciatively.
“You’re well informed. Our chef trained at Taille-Vent.”
“Then it’s served with caviar sauce.”
“That’s correct, sir.”
As the executives watch him with expressions of utter horror, the young man orders the quenelle, escargot wrapped in pastry, an apple and walnut salad, and “I think I feel like a Corton Charlemagne. Do you have a 1981?”
“I’ll call the sommelier, sir.”
The waiter collects the menus. Every executive, including the senior manager, is red-faced with shame, lowering their heads to hide their faces. As the waiter quietly closes the door, he bows only to the young man who has just committed professional suicide.
Like all great satire, Tampopo is well disguised. You don’t have to be a film geek to like this movie, although it helps. You can easily watch it half asleep or stoned if you want to, chilling and enjoying the gags and the dialogue. Tampopo’s quest is a familiar kung fu movie staple, and her efforts to prove herself worthy of being called a ramen master are hilariously depicted. Lines like “you have done me a good turn - now I will show you my secret technique” and “so, you think our noodles are not worthy? You’ll eat them now, or apologize!” make it easy to go with the flow, and if the whole movie was about Tampopo herself it would probably be remembered as an enjoyably offbeat kung fu parody, but ultimately a minor work that wouldn’t shake anybody’s world.
But Tampopo, thankfully, is not just about Tampopo. As sensei notes, the movie is overflowing with nested worlds, fourth wall breaches, symbolic imagery and homages to various cinematic traditions. Everything from silent movies to fantastically erotic food sex shows up in the vignettes that interlace the story, with occasional sharp jabs that hit you like the best parts of Catch 22, always funny but carrying a very serious message.
There are several general themes that run like undercurrents through these odd scenes. One of the most prominent is the clash between old ways and new, tradition versus innovation and East versus West. In several places the director seems to be making a statement about the absurdity of the traditional Japanese ways. But the results don’t always favour the modern or Western ways, and the meanings are not always obvious.
A few of the pieces are clearly meant only as comic interludes. But don’t get too comfortable yet, because a bit later we’ll see a wife heroically postponing her last breath to prepare one more meal for her family, while the doctor looks on in shock. As the doctor announces the time of death, the children begin to cry, and their tearful father berates them, “keep eating! It’s the last meal Mom cooked for us! Eat! Eat while it’s hot! ”
And if you think this is weird, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Later on we meet a man with a toothache, and Juzo Itami’s direction takes a distinctly French New Wavey sort of turn. After watching this movie a dozen times or so, I’m pretty sure I know what the man’s abscessed tooth represents, but I have no idea what to make of the soft-serve ice cream cone. It may be only a coincidence, but in some parts of the world, this kind of ice cream is called American ice cream. I tend to think this wasn’t a random choice, but Itami never goes out of his way to provide an easy interpretation.
Unless, of course, you believe that it’s all just a celebration of the role of food in Japanese culture. Either way, the comedy is classic, the kung-fu is deadly, and the noodles are full of conviction. The closing shot ought to have momomom cooing with approval, too.
"What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying 'see you soon.'"