Soups You, Sir

Have you seen that quirky new Japanese film? The one that goes full-on geek about some silly little pastime – brass bands, or sumo wrestling, or candy selling, or cosplay – or that gets truly, madly deeply into a completely mundane profession, like funeral directors, or bus drivers or…? Amid the samurai and the sex kittens, it sometimes seems like every festival season has some earnest little Japanese comedy, making the best of a small budget by focusing with incisive high resolution on some tiny piece of the modern world.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) was the granddaddy of them all, mashing the workplace drama into the comedy sketch show and the Zen pursuit of perfection. Turn on your TV any weeknight in Japan, and you will see a dozen serials that seem to riff on it – valorising the dedication of obscure professions, or enthusing about food… or both. Its blue-collar truck-driver hero Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town like some bygone cowboy, taking local widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) under his wing as she tries to master the art of cooking noodles. He and his swiftly assembled cabal of hangers-on gamely mansplain the nature of proper fast food in a series of test-runs and side-quests, while background characters, largely middle-class buffoons, blunder through a series of unrelated vignettes and satires about epicurean culture, taste and table manners.

It’s hard to remember, when piss-poor chain-restaurant ramen are to be had on every British high street, that there was once a time when Japanese noodles were an exotic foreign import for cinemagoers. Supposedly an evolution of Chinese noodles, but actually a post-war development that combined American food-aid wheat with Asian ingredients, these combinations of broth, noodles and optional toppings were a wonder for 1980s audiences to behold. It is, ironically, unlikely that many foreign cinemagoers appreciated how un-Japanese a film Tampopo could be, conceived by its director as a pastiche on numerous American genres, from Westerns to gangster movies to romance.

Three decades on, Tampopo is not merely an entertaining comedy about food and foodies. It is also now a time-capsule glimpse of a golden age, when a pre-recessionary Japan swum in so much money that it snapped up van Goghs, took over American corporations, and propelled its newly monied middle class into the world of fine wines, foreign cuisines and hipster menus. In that sense, its oddball cast were everymen a few steps behind the times, concentrating instead with pure-hearted nationalistic fervour on hearty, homespun local food: a proper meal, done properly. The titular heroine is a woman on the way up, aspiring to an honest day’s pay for a good job done well. Even as ramen was on the way up in the West, some feared it was on the way out in Japan, crowded out by spaghetti carbonara and burgers. Fortunately, rumours of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

And what a cast! Ken Watanabe, future star of The Last Samurai, is seen here as a gormless truck-driver sidekick. Koji Yakusho, future star of Thirteen Assassins, is a mad-eyed gangster who harangues the audience about consideration for others. His scenes are the ones that linger longest in the mind, not the least for their witty eroticism as he swaps an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth with his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) or tries to discuss a secret recipe for sausages in the middle of a gunfight.

Tampopo remains a joy to watch for the Japan nerd. It’s not just the little cameos, like Lady Snowblood director Toshiya Fujita as a man with a sore tooth, it’s the dozens of little asides and nods to the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, from the pearl-divers who once formed an entire subset of soft-core erotica, to the domestication of foreign food (or some might say today, cultural appropriation) as the original Chinesey café name of Lai Lai is replaced by Tampopo’s own. Itami uses food as a keyword for examining Japanese life and customs from top to bottom, foreshadowing today’s wacky scholars who try and tell the history of the world through clocks or condiments. His masterpiece remains a film that leaves every viewer hungry.

Tampopo is playing as part of the Culinary Culture and Gastronomy in Japanese Cinema season in London on 26th August. This article was originally written for Geeky Monkey #23, although the magazine was cancelled from underneath it.

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Tampopo

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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]