The late Japanese auteur Juzo Itami creates the first “noodle western” with this hilarious comedy that meshes elements of American westerns and Japanese samurai films with a taste of Izami’s style of random comedy.
Goro is a cowboy hat-wearing truck driver who on a fateful night with his partner Gun stop for a bowl of ramen at the Lai Lai Noodle Shop. The shop is run by widowed Tampopo, who has been struggling since the death of her husband. When Pisken, a contractor who is at the shop drunk with his buddies hits on Tampopo and offers to buy her shop out, Goro is annoyed and picks a fight only to get mercilessly beaten by Pisken and his boys.
When Goro and Gun are at Tampopo’s home, they try her ramen and learn there is something missing, an element that would make it a perfect noodle dish. Tampopo, determined to make it as a successful ramen shop owner, asks Goro to help her. Reluctant at first, Goro takes the offer to help and finds some unexpected help along the way. While still having her doubts, Tampopo is determined to make the perfect ramen. Will she finally succeed and live her dream of being a success in the world of ramen?
Juzo Itami was quite an interesting filmmaker in terms of his comedies, where he focused on a main idea and then would randomly add scenes that would have a similar theme to the main topic of the film itself. For this film, his most renowned film, the main topic is food, specifically ramen noodles. Izami’s script is a welcome meshing of the American western with a dash of samurai film thanks in part of the performance of lead actor Tsutomu Yamazaki as the modern day cowboy Goro. Sporting a cowboy hat practically throughout the entire film minus one scene, Yamazaki is fun to watch as the heroic mentor to our titular character Tampopo (which means “dandelion” in Japanese) and defends her against anyone who tells her she is not good enough.
Izami’s widow, Nobuko Miyamoto (who starred in all of her late husband’s films), is wonderfully as Tampopo, who transitions quite well from struggling widow to a more confident woman who is determined to live her dream as a noodle shop owner. She will do anything to prepare the right ingredients, including paying a shopkeeper 30,000 yen to let her spy on the ramen chef next door to get the secret of his soup base.
While Goro is her main mentor, she also gets advice from the likes of Goro’s partner Gun, played with comic relief at times by a young Ken Watanabe of Batman Begins; Yoshi Kato as a hobo who has quite the delicate palate for food; and The Toxic Avenger Part II‘s “Big Mac” himself, Rikiya Yasuoka as the contractor who we see starts as a rival, but after a one-on-one with Goro done in the style of what you would expect in a Western, becomes a worthy ally.
Now, while that took care of the main point of the film, it must be noted that Izami will have some randomness involved in the film and it drives the comical value to a tee. In one such random scene, a group of businessman are ordering dinner at a seafood restaurant with one young intern ordering different from the others, resulting in him getting some shocks and grief. This is followed by a group of women learning how to eat spaghetti abroad with etiquette while they hear a foreign traveler in Japan slurping on a bunch of spaghetti himself, forcing this group of women to follow suit. The reason for this is to show certain customs in Japan that may be quite interesting to know for those who have not been there or know any of the customs. In the first case, it is polite for an intern to follow suit alongside his supervisor and order the same thing no matter what. In the second case, slurping your food, while considered rude in other parts of the world, is actually seen as an appreciation for the food in Japan.
Izami also goes left field with the appearance of the mysterious Man in White, played by Koji Yakusho. The Man in White actually opens the film as he and his mistress go on a date to the movies with a table full of food with the Man breaking the fourth wall and give an explanation of what he can’t stand at the movies and what he feels a movie is like. The next time we see The Man in White is when he is with his mistress in his hotel room and they play with their food in a way that perhaps could have influenced Adrian Lyne to pull something similar but done with more passion in his erotic thriller 9 ½ Weeks. However, the way it is done here is more comical. This is one guy who sees any food as an aphrodisiac and while it is freaky, it is how it is displayed here that makes it funny. The entire film soon has the end credits rolling in one of the all time “wtf” moments in movie history in this reviewer’s opinion.
Tampopo is definitely a fun comedy revolving around the world of noodle shops and meshes well with Western, samurai, and total randomness from the mind of the late great Juzo Itami.
WFG RATING: A
An Itami Productions film. Director: Juzo Itami. Producers: Juzo Itami, Seigo Hosogoe, and Yasushi Tamaoki. Writer: Juzo Itami. Cinematography: Masaki Tamura. Editing: Akira Suzuki.
Cast: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Rikiya Yasuoka, Kinzo Sakura, Yoshi Kato, Hideji Otaki, Fukumi Kuroda, Setsuko Shinoi.