I've always loved the Japanese film Tampopo, ever since I first saw it when I was in high school, shortly after its original release. Sometimes described as a "noodle western," the film intersperses its main story - a woman's quest to make the perfect bowl of noodles - is interspersed with tiny vignettes that explore the many and varied roles of food in the lives of humans.
These roles are diverse, but they are all essential - the film fugues on food and business, food and sex, food and death, food and culture, just to name a few. In one vignettes, a group of salarymen attend a lavish French restaurant. Each orders the exact same simple meal that the boss has selected - right down to the drink. At the end of the table, though, a young man dares to flout the unwritten rules of business, engaging in a thorough dialogue with the waiter about every nuance of the menu before ordering a rich, exotic meal. In another vignette, a dying woman's last act is to prepare a simple fried rice for her family, which they eat, sobbing frantically, as she collapses and dies at the foot of the table. It sounds horrible, and it is - but somehow there is also a dark humor, a wry mood that permeates even the most outlandish scenes in the film.
It is in the film's main story, though, that the late filmmaker Juzo Itami's knack for creating quirky characters really shines. It begins when two itinerant truckdrivers duck into a roadside noodle shop on a rainy night. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a gruff and manly, sports a cowboy hat and moves with the deliberate languidness of a man who has spent a lot of time on his own - he is probably the reason for the "noodle western" epithet. Goro's sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe) is more sprightly and energetic, but less philosophical. The noodle shop is owned and run by Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a sad, struggling single mother. After Goro criticizes her noodles she begs him to help her make them better, and so begins their quest. They conduct reconnaissance missions to competing noodle shops, peering through windows and bribing or tricking employees into giving up the secrets of their toothsome noodles or flavorful broths. They collect a rag-tag bunch of allies as well - an elderly chef who is a master of broth, a driver who also happens to make the best noodles in town, a contractor willing to spiff up the shop's interior. Tampopo trains with Olympic fervor, obsessively focused on that perfect bowl of noodles.
The story and its characters are delightfully peculiar. Everyone has an opinion on what makes a perfect noodle - this is not merely a matter of taste and texture, but of philosophy, the very stuff of existence. That is why the vignettes sprinkled throughout the film work so well, despite their disconnect from Tampopo's quest - they illustrate and expand upon the musings of Goro and his friends.
Some people probably don't care for the genre of "food movies" - I guess I am not one of those people, as films like Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night, as well as Tampopo, consistently figure among my favorites. Food is obviously essential to life, but it is also so much more than that - a decadent pleasure, a focus of family and social life, a defining aspect of culture and ethnicity. Tampopo illuminates the many facets of the relationship between people and their food, from all angles.
It was a great treat to finally obtain this film on DVD. I believe there must have been a dispute over distribution rights following Juzo Itami's death, because for many years there were no new copies available in the US and the film is so wonderful and popular that used copies on Amazon or eBay were going for as much as $300. I was pleased to discover recently that Amazon is now carrying an import edition from Japan for a very reasonable price. (It does have English subtitles, and I had no trouble playing it in my US DVD player, though some of the user comments suggest these might be problems). When I got this DVD I watched Tampopo for the first time in perhaps ten years, and was delighted to find that I not only remembered nearly every scene, but that I still enjoyed every bit as much as the first time I saw it.