There are other food films, of course (I’m partial to “Babette’s Feast,” for the obvious reason), but Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985) is the perfect one, cleverly, raucously, reflecting everything we want/need from food, delivering everything we want/need from film.
The central story features a young widow, Tampopo (perfectly played by Itami’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, mostly playing down her beauty), running a (at best) second-rate, dreary noodle shop, her bullied son and the unlikely group of guys that forms to help her make her restaurant “worth a special trip.”
Tampopo’s first two ramen instructors, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), square-jawed handsome, wearing a cowboy hat, and his sidekick, Gun (a young Ken Watanabe), arrive in a big blue truck on a dark and stormy night. Her consultants soon include a strongman/contractor, a former ob/gyn, and a chef who also works as a chauffeur. Her rigorous education incorporates jogging, eating at notable ramen shops, corporate espionage, the endless application of knowledge acquired, the refining of technique and esthetics, and wearing an elegant toque.
The main proceedings are punctuated with vignettes (only some of which directly impact Tampopo’s story). A yakuza and his girlfriend are first seen breaking the fourth wall at the picture show as their dinner is being served. These two lovelies in white (the better to make stains, my dear) leave any subtlety about the connection between food and sex hilariously behind. The ex-ob/gyn and his homeless buddies, gourmets all, eat out of the dumpsters behind high-end restaurants. A devoted mother cooks a final rice dish for her family before keeling over.
Completing her training, Tampopo triumphs with one last and sublime meal for her friends. As a long line forms outside her newly renovated shop, Goro and Gun, their work done, get into their truck. Her other mentors melt away. The film closes with an increasingly tight shot of a baby enjoying the first yummy*.
“Tampopo,” returning to theaters for the first time in nearly 30 years, in a gorgeous new 4K restoration, will open at Film Forum today for a two-week run, and on Friday, October 28 at the Landmark NuArt in Los Angeles. A national rollout will follow.
There will be a Q&A with Nobuko Miyamoto at Film Forum today at 7:35 pm and on Saturday, October 22 she will intro the 2:45 pm show. Film Forum will be serving popcorn from Lucky Peach with special ramen popcorn seasoning.