The saying goes that some people eat to live, and some people live to eat. Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” is the rare serving of food porn that brings both groups to the table. First released in 1985 (and now returning to theaters with a delectable new 4K restoration), this timeless Japanese classic begins with a petulant gangster bringing a full picnic into a movie theater, and ends with a hungry infant instinctively suckling on his mother’s breast. In between, Itami’s fiercely beloved film unfolds like a prix fixe tasting menu of strange comic delights, the director’s fabulist sensibilities feeding into an episodic foodie fantasia about all of the things that give life its flavor and make it worth savoring.
The only movie ever made that could accurately be described as a cross between “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Songs From the Second Floor,” “Tampopo” has been billed as a “ramen western,” and that’s as good a description as any for what Itami managed to cook up. After a delightful prologue in which Kōji Yakusho’s swaggering gangster shatters the fourth wall and whets our appetites for something special, the film introduces us to the driving forces of its so-called plot.
Gun (a young Ken Watanabe) and Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) are a couple of long-haul truckers who are caught in a torrential downpour and in desperate need of some dinner. Seeing a decrepit noodle joint on the side of a small Tokyo side street, they dismount from their massive iron steed and saunter inside. It doesn’t take much for a Japanese movie to conjure the image of a wandering ronin, but Gorō’s cowboy hat and his Clint Eastwood perma-scowl do less to evoke Kurosawa than they do the filmmakers who were inspired by him (like a good bowl of ramen, Itami finds a harmony between a stew of different ingredients).
Inside the restaurant, the two drenched cowboys find a woman at her wit’s end. A recently widowed single mom whose noodles are “sincere, but lack character,” Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is struggling to get by on her own. Naturally, Gorō and Gun decide to rededicate their lives to saving her business — and her soul? — by helping her create the perfect bowl. It’s just that kind of movie. But this isn’t just a straightforward charmer about a woman who learns how to make a meal out of her leftovers.
On the contrary, Itami uses the premise as a hot pot in which to gather and serve up a dozen different ideas, his film burbling over with unexpected tangents. When Tampopo isn’t being submitted to a Rocky-like training montage (complete with the cook running along a river as Gorō bikes alongside her), we’re treated to an uneven array of strange asides. Some, such as the bit in which a wizened old ramen master tells Tampopo about the right way to eat noodles (“apologize to the pork”), feel absolutely essential. Others, such as the bit where an old woman tries to stealthily touch all of the produce in a supermarket, feel less so. With one major exception, the best of these asides play like self-contained shorts, each mordantly amusing in its own way.
It’s hard not to think of Roy Andersson during the sketch in which a depleted housewife climbs out of her deathbed in order to make one final meal for her husband and kids before giving up the ghost. Likewise, Buñuel’s name will be on the tip of your tongue during the class-conscious sequence where a bunch of corporate stooges order the same meal as their boss, only for the mousy low man on the totem pole to pepper the waiter with informed questions and ask for something special. Itami wants you to slurp down whatever references you make — good taste is something to be shared, not squandered.
Nowhere in “Tampopo” is that idea more graphically expressed than in the film’s dominant subplot, about the wild affair between Yakusho’s gangster and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda). Perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to starve themselves to death after watching the hardboiled egg scene from “In the Realm of the Senses,” this erotically-charged romantic detour gets up close and personal with a pair of lovers who use food to lubricate their lust for each other. The only explicitly fetishistic portion of a film in which everything is obsessive to some degree, this visceral thread offers one unforgettable image after another (for better or worse). Itami’s shots are often far more removed and artfully arranged than those in most modern comedies, his style cleaving closer to that of the late Pierre Étaix springs to mind, but the ones in these scenes are sensual to the extreme. A close-up of Yakusho and Kuroda passing a slimy egg yolk between their mouths has become iconic, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To some extent, the surplus of subplots take their toll, as it’s easy to lose track of (or interest in) what’s going on back at Tampopo’s restaurant, but Itami’s cast creates such a complete sense of warmth and joy that it’s not hard to appreciate a story that’s told at a low simmer instead of a full boil. Like all of the best comfort food, “Tampopo” tastes familiar but not derivative, something more than the sum of its ingredients. If “Tampopo” resonates with you in ways you might not expect or be able to name, it’s because Itami also engenders the same respect for everything that goes into the making of a movie.
“Tampopo” at Film Forum on Friday, October 21st, and will then expand to other theaters across the country. The Criterion Collection will release the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2017.