The tale of an eccentric band of culinary ronin who guide the widow of a noodle shop owner on her quest for the perfect recipe, this rapturous “ramen western” by Japanese director Juzo Itami is an entertaining, genre-bending adventure underpinned by a deft satire of the way social conventions distort the most natural of human urges, our appetites. Interspersing the efforts of Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) and friends to make her café a success with the erotic exploits of a gastronome gangster and glimpses of food culture both high and low, the sweet, sexy, and surreal Tampopo is a lavishly inclusive paean to the sensual joys of nourishment, and one of the most mouthwatering examples of food on film ever made.
Tampopo was billed as a Ramen Western, playing off the name of Italy's Spaghetti Western genre. Although the film certainly does have some aspects reminiscent of a Western, particularly Shane as writer/director Juzo Itami makes clear in "The Making of Tampopo," that is too limiting of a name because Tampopo offers much more than what one might expect from a Western.
The film opens with the Man in White Suit (Kji Yakusho) dressed like a gangster in a movie theater. He brings to mind Michel from Godard's Breathless, a criminal who took inspiration from Humphrey Bogart. The Man talks directly to the camera about people eating in the movie theater, almost like a PSA, and directs his ire at the man eating chips out of a crinkly bag, threatening to kill him if he makes that noise after the movie starts. He's a hero after my own heart.
The film cuts to a tanker truck driving on a rainy night in black and white followed by a cut back to color with two men, a narrator and an older man who studied ramen for forty years, out to eat. The camera delivers close-ups to lovingly show off the ingredients. The kid wants to rush in while older man appreciates the looks and smell first. Then he details his thorough ritual of eating ramen that includes apologizing to the pork about to be eaten. The film cuts back to the tanker truck but in color, revealing that the previous scene was in a book Gun (Ken Watanabe) is reading while Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) drives. It's clear after these few scenes Itami will likely play with narrative as the story unfolds.
Goro and Gun stop for a bite at a ramen house run by a woman named Tampopo. They see her young son getting roughed up by fellow students and discover a bunch thugs hanging around her restaurant. Goro amusingly takes on the gang, off camera, and gets them to move on. He also discovers she is not good in the kitchen and takes on the task of educating her on how to become a real ramen cook, mirroring training regimens for soldiers.
Itami sends the plot off on tangents. There are a number of scenes involving food at a local hotel. The funniest is when a group of businessmen eat at a well-known and pricey French restaurant. After looking at the menu, one by one the men decide to have something light: sole, consomme, and a Heineken beer, but a young, clueless man decides to order a variety of fancy items, even after his superior repeatedly kicks him under the table. The sexiest involves the unexpected return of the Man in White and his girl who turn their meal into a memorable sensuous experience.
Tampopo begins a serious study, visiting other ramen shops in an attempt to surreptitiously learn their secrets. People come in to help her learn how to cook and one man helps fix up the building. More amusing food vignettes take place until the main story reaches its climax. Those already familiar with Shane know how it ends, but Tampopo is a marvelously entertaining movie that will likely leave the viewer hungry because of how joyous an experience it suggests food can be.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Tampopo (#868) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in their standard clear keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. "Ramen for the People," an essay by journalist Willy Blackmore, appears in the accompanying fold-out poster
According to the liner notes, "This new digital restoration was created in 4K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. The transfer was approved by director Juzo Itami's longtime cinematographer Yonezo Maeda. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management."
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The colors come through in bright hues. A great example can be seen in the many items in the grocery store as an older woman makes her way through the aisles. The red seen in blood is rich. Whites look clean and bright. Blacks are inky and the shadows can swallow objects. Focus is typically sharp as seen in close-ups like a hand holding a stopwatch, but some close-ups of females are shot a touch softer intentionally.
While usually pleasing to the eye, the film grain gets a bit busy during opening theater scene. It's especially apparent on the green walls. On occasion, lights within the frame are too bright and bloom, diminishing the image around them. This can be seen during renovations when Goro and Gun fight over Tampopo's appearance and in Big Three Dragons' ramen shop.
The audio is available in Japanese 1.0. Also in the liner notes, "the monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm original magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX."
The track sound clean, free of any signs of wear or defect. Some of the dialogue recorded in post production was obvious because of how flat it sounded. Kunihiko Murai's score came through with great clarity, as did the funny use effects for the occasional slurp of noodles. The elements blended well for a balanced mix, but nothing ever got very loud so the dynamic range is narrow.
The Making of Tampopo (1080i, 90 min) – A feature-length making-of doc shot during production and narrated by Itami that delves deeply into the film's creation
Nobuko Miyamoto (HD, 11 min) – Recorded in 2016, the actress talks about working on Tampopo, which was directed by her husband.
Seiko Ogawa (HD, 16 min) – Also recorded in 2016, Ogawa speaks about her work on Tampopo as a food stylist, a special crew position Itami created because the food was more imoortant than to simply be classified as a prop.
The Amateur and the Craftsperson (HD, 10 min) – A 2017 video essay created by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos that explores the Tampopo's themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft.
The Perfect Bowl (HD, 22 min) – Created in 2016, it looks at Tampopo's influence on food culture with ramen experts and chefs.
Rubber Band Pistol (HD, 33 min) – This short is Itami's directorial debut.
Trailer (HD, 2 min)
Criterion has delivered a feast for film fans. Like a great ramen, Tampopo has been treated with great care in bringing it to high definition, getting the most out of its essential elements. And the bonus features make a fantastic dessert to savor after watching the film.