Asia take 4 – Japanese ramen western

Tampopo -Juzo Itami (1985)

Just nipping across the Korea strait now (thanks google maps) to Japan. Although I can’t say I’ve seen a great deal of Japanese cinema, apart from really obvious films like The Ring, Battle Royale and few Studio Ghibli films, what I’ve seen has been super diverse and different from what I’d seen before. Tampopo was no exception here as I can confidently say I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Have you ever heard of the Ramen Western genre? If no, me neither. As Oldboy was the defining film of the revenge genre, this post’s focus, Tampopo, is the defining Ramen Western: where the far east meets the Old West. Whilst trying to choose my final (for now) Asian film, I watched a bunch of really intriguing trailers that made my life really difficult because I am indecisive as it is, but Tampopo just looked so fun and it was about making Japanese food.. what more could you want? The film ended up being a little less straight forward than this but these were the elements that initially drew me to Tampopo.

The film opens with an unnamed male character (listed as Man in White Suit on imdb) sitting down in the cinema surrounded by lavish food. He addresses the camera, asking the audience not rustle wrappers or cause interruption as it could be the last movie he sees before he dies. As the lights go down signalling the start of the film, we cut to a scene of an old man deconstructing the process of eating a bowl of ramen in ridiculous detail. We are sucked into this story only to be thrown out again when we realise it is a book that is being read to one of the films protagonists. I think I’ve managed to even confuse myself with that description but it isn’t that complicated I promise. Anyway, it was at this point that I realised, ok, this isn’t going to be quite the cute ramen comedy I was expecting.

The main plot, which is actually quite straightforward and incredibly endearing, begins when Goro stops his truck to eat at a noodle restaurant run by struggling chef, Tampopo. After he showcases his coincidentally extensive knowledge of cooking noodles, Tampopo begs him to stay and help her save her struggling business and they begin their journey to cook the perfect ramen. Goro represents the ‘western’ in ‘ramen western’, riding (driving his truck) into town in his cowboy hat and discovering someone (Tampopo) in need. Throughout, the film is satirical in its incorporation of Western traits, Goro jumping at the opportunity to fight a troublemaker in the restaurant yet being badly beaten.

This is intercut with long (sometimes frustratingly so), digressions, following random people that appear in the background of the main plot, showing arguably the 3 core obsessions of human kind; food, sex and death… often (but not always) at the same time. These digressions, or mini-stories, explore a variety of themes and ideas. These range from Karoshi (death by overwork), in which a woman rises from her death bed to cook her family one last meal before dying, to Western customs, which are mocked in a scene where young women are given lessons in how to eat noodles silently like they do in the west. Of course, failing this continue they slurp them with exaggerated sounds. These small stories can be sad, a lot of the time funny and others just are just downright strange and uncomfortable.

Though at times uncomfortable, I can’t say I have ever seen anything like it, to quote Ebert; “Tampopo is one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category.”  Even if, at odd points during the digressions I felt somewhat alienated by the bizarre goings on, it was still incredibly entertaining and at the end of them, I was always reunited with Goro and Tampopo and their group of noodle, soup and ambience experts, which was always a delight. More than anything though, the film made me ridiculously hungry. I recommend it with warning: watch if you have a packet of ramen in the cupboard or an emergency Wagamamas in close vicinity.



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