Oral fixation is a common recurrence in the anime world. I often got grumbles from anime fans when I would point at the outrageous, endless obsession with food exhibited by characters in anime for a pre- and early-teen audience as a sublimation of every other desire. The complaints were usually from people (and once, from the distributor of Slayers) who would rather not admit that the show they treasured was not made for 18-year-old Americans at all, but for Japanese primary school children. But eating was also the central theme of one of the rare Japanese films to get genuine mainstream western attention in the 1980s. I expect, in this modern day and age, it would have gone straight to video in the UK and been the subject of three blogs and a web review, but back then, when Japanese stuff was still rare and exotic, it had its own slot on Barry Norman’s Film 88, even though its plot might seem silly by modern standards: a woman’s quest to create the perfect bowl of noodles.
I first saw Tampopo then, only a couple of years after I had suddenly and inexplicably decided to learn Japanese. I had to go to the isolated, deserted arts theatre in Basildon because it wasn’t being shown anywhere else. My girlfriend and I were virtually alone in the cinema. I suppose, thinking back, that I probably had never even eaten any Japanese food at that time. I certainly didn’t speak any Japanese.
Today, despite getting serious press coverage on its original release, Tampopo still seems to be difficult to dig up. The version officially “on sale” at Amazon US seems to be a grey import from Japan, since the Japanese release is naughtily Region 0. The Japanese have a no-frills DVD release with appalling cover artwork that supposedly makes it part of a Juzo Itami series. The series is united by:
a) being directed by Juzo Itami
b) having appalling cover artwork
Although I am not aware of any complaints at the time from the British Board of Film Classification, one does wonder if the difficulty of getting hold of a copy has something to do with the fact that a turtle is killed on screen and two prawns are tortured in alcohol. Mrs Clements was greatly amused by the seriousness with which the Japanese approached something as daft as a bowl of noodles, particularly since she identified that the “joke” was lost in a world where the Japanese in movies approach everything seriously. What may have been ironic for Itami loses much of its clout in a world where the Japanese are serious about trains, serious about sumo, and serious about anything you care to name. Such po-faced concentration is supposed to distract us from the fact that putting a spring onion on some noodles is hardly rocket science. It might have been irony for Itami, but for many, many imitators it was just an excuse for bad film-making.
It has been 20 years since I first saw Tampopo — enough time for me to live that entire life again. It was made in 1985, at the height of the booming economy that would later collapse into a decade-long recession, and had a truly amazing cast. Back then, when I was 17, I had no idea that the gangster-narrator was played by Koji Yakusho, or that the sidekick was a very young Ken Watanabe. I am *still* piecing together the myriad cameos that only mean something to a Japanese audience — some for their associations at the time, others for the careers they would go on to have. And I am surprised at how relentlessly cruel it is.
School bullies are befriended by kicking the crap out of them, and this makes them one’s best mates all of a sudden. Men fight with each other because it’s what men do, and that makes them friends — no wonder the yaoi crowd started making people snog instead, it’s no less ludicrous. Tampopo herself is a woman who strives for the approval of a bunch of patronising losers (two truck-drivers, a tramp, a drunk and a chauffeur), whose worthless opinions on the preparation of the Japanese equivalent of a ham sandwich are imparted with godlike condescension. The characters admit that noodle appraisal is an amateur enterprise, and yet keep on coming out with pretentious attempts to make it sound posher than it really is.
I genuinely think Itami was being ironic. But I see such faux-connoisseurs all the time. People with the palates of fussy children and no frame of reference enthuse endlessly about different brands of cola, their favourite supermarket ice cream, or the texture of a sandwich, without realising that they are playing in a very small pond. Itami points beyond the world of noodles to a multicultural world of food, where enjoyment is paramount. Food itself, as seen in the spaghetti eating scene where a gaijin gets it “wrong”, is what he likes, and his closing shot, of a child merrily sucking away at a breast, is a marker that eating stuff can be, or rather should be, one of the universal and enduring pleasures of human life. So, possibly, exactly the wrong thing for me to be watching two days into my diet.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. [Tampopo finally got a Criterion release, in the US, nine years later in April 2017]