By Tom LaVenture
AAP staff writer
Japanese director Juzo Itami (“The Funeral,” “A Taxing Woman”) wrote and directed “Tampopo” in 1985. After watching it the first time in the 1990s, I wondered if the film would stand the test of time and keep its charm, and it does.
“Tampopo” (115 minutes, Japanese with English subtitles) opens Friday at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis. The film is restored and presented in 4K Janus Films in digital format.
Tampopo is the humble, lovable central character who as a widowed mother of a school age boy has no idea how to make a noodle shop succeed on her own. Her son is constantly beaten up by the other boys and is rescued one day by two truck drivers who bring the boy back to the noodle shop.
One of the truckers, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a rough around the edges middle-age man who’s own wife and son left him, decides to have lunch in a run-down ramen shop with his co-driver. The two men join the others in the shop in ridiculing Tampopo’s noodles.
Goru reluctantly agrees to help Tampopo turn her noodle shop into a successful ramen stand. The two visit several other shops to find the secrets of preparing the best noodles, broth, meats and vegetables.
One of Goru’s friends is an elderly ramen grandmaster (Ryutaro Otomo) who lives in a homeless community where everyone lives in poverty but all have gourmet knowledge of food. The men scavenge for scraps that become gourmet meals and further explain what makes ramen special.
Another old acquaintance is a noodle master (Yoshi Kato) who completes Tampopo’s training.
After a big fight Goro befriends his traditional enemy, Pisken (Koji Yakuoka), a contractor, to transform the dingy little noodle shop into a beautiful out of the way destination. The roughnecks who Goru had fought with are suddenly transforming Tampopo’s interior and her wardrobe into a four-star dining room.
The charm of the film is the lighthearted perspective on how food defines people. The film portrays people who don’t give a thought to what they eat as bland and lifeless. Those with knowledge of food and who take care with how it is prepared seem more full of life and complete.
“Tampopo” is more than a romantic comedy because of the side vignettes throughout the film. Koji Yakusho is splendid as a very refined yakuza who is obsessed with experiencing the best of the world’s foods and explaining the most detailed nuances to his lover (Fukimi Kuroda).
One clip from the film has been aired many times on its own. It is the scene where a group of Japanese salary are men having lunch in a French restaurant.
The men, not knowledgeable of the menu, and in deference to their chief executive, all follow his lead and order steak and beer. A lone salary man, the youngest, enters into a lengthy dialogue with the waiter, questioning the content of every course to put together the perfect meal — at first upsetting his colleagues for going rogue and them leaving them speechless.
Other scenes range from a husband convincing his wife to get out of her death bed to prepare one last meal for the family, to an elderly woman who squeezes fruit in the supermarket, and the young yakuza and his lover who embark on an erotic food-fantasy.
The film is worth watching just for the vignettes and “Tampopo” as a charming romantic comedy remains timeless because it remains accessible to the present through food, values and relationships.
Society changes and like most past films there are a few scenes that fall short in a contemporary screening as women are most often portrayed as helpless and in wondering why violence must used in this comedy. But “Tampopo” still succeeds overall as an entertaining comedy drama.