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  • Benjamin May

Tampopo (1985) Review

Tampopo is a widow struggling to run a noodle shop called Lai Lai. Though she cooks with sincerity, her food lacks depth and flavour. After a chance encounter with a truck driver named Goro, Tampopo realizes that she must learn more about the culinary arts if her business is to succeed. Taking her under his wing, Goro goes about teaching Tampopo the intricacies of noodle soup making, determined to transform her restaurant into a paragon of culinary excellence. Meanwhile, a white-suited gangster and his moll discover new, erotic ways to express their love for one another through food; despite his enemies lurking ever-close.

Written and directed by Juzo Itami, 'Tampopo' is a beautifully constructed testament to the power of food that leaves the viewer hungry for more. Showing in great detail how food can be a source of pleasure, joy and love, the film is both heart-warming and life-affirming. A sharply written, richly humorous story about a quest for culinary perfection, 'Tampopo' is structured like a western, and can be seen as a homage to same. With its cowboyesque hero and narrative beats parodying conventions of the genre- such as the showdown and the saloon brawl- 'Tampopo' is a marvellous 'ramen western' packed full of flavour.

All of Itami's characters- from the titular chef to an ailing housewife- are ones of depth, crafted with intelligence, wit and warmth. His sub-plots, varying in length, explore how food brings people together, both emotionally and physically. Be it the vignette involving a spaghetti eating etiquette class or the aforementioned ailing housewife, these individual stories reinforce the film's overall message. Sensual and erotic in places, 'Tampopo' offers viewers a delicious blend of comedy and drama that goes down smoothly. Itami's second film, it is arguably his masterpiece; and one whose universal story resonates still.

'Tampopo' features striking cinematography from Masaki Tamura, whose expressionistic work in films like 'Lady Snowblood' and 'The Assassination of Ryoma' helped cement his reputation as one of Japan's finest cinematographers. His work for 'Tampopo' is undeniably powerful and dynamic, heightening the film's themes, tone and narrative impact. Utilising a variety of camera angles, movements and transitions- such as zooms, tracking shots, fades and pans- he helps foster the film's lively and humorous tone, as well as its connection to the western genre.

Furthermore, Tamura's work helps maintain a sense of realism throughout 'Tampopo', with his use of natural lighting, locations and colours creating an authentic depiction of 1980's Japan. His usage of visual metaphors and contrasts- be it of a Japanese flag on a rice omelette symbolising pride and identity, or an egg yolk referencing fertility-serves to bolster the films themes, while also remaining visually beguiling. Throughout the film, his work impresses and enthrals; leaving an indelible impression on the viewer.

As do the performances from the cast. There could be no one better for the titular role than Itami's muse and spouse Nobuko Miyamoto, who imbues the character with an infectious energy and lust for life. Itami and Miyamoto created many rich characters in the ten films they made together, from 'A Taxing Woman' to the 'Supermarket Woman'; and Tampopo may be the most compelling of them all. Alongside her, Tsutomu Yamazaki delivers a masterclass in understatement as Goro, playing him with a wry charm and subtle strength- almost like an Eastern Clint Eastwood. Koji Yakusho also shines in the role of the white-suited gangster, stealing every scene he's in with his charisma and magnetic screen presence.

An energetic, enthralling motion picture, Juzo Itami's 'Tampopo' is almost certainly the director's magnum opus. An affecting meditation on the importance and power of food, the film can make one cry and laugh in equal measure. Featuring an engrossing narrative, beautiful cinematography from Masaki Tamura and power-house performances from all in the cast, 'Tampopo' is delicious, delightful and a real cinematic treat.


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