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.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. This article was originally written for Geeky Monkey #23, although the magazine was cancelled from underneath it.