Tonight’s film is Tampopo, which was released in 1985.
Tampopo was written and directed by Juzo Itami who lived from 1933 to 1997.
This was his second feature film and the first one that brought him international attention.
Itami described this film as Shane with ramen. Have any of you seen Shane?
I watched it for the first time last week. Shane is a Western from 1953. So the quick plot summary is:
Shane, a mysterious gunfighter rides into Jackson, Wyoming after the Civil War. There’s an ongoing battle between homesteaders and cattle ranchers who want to use the homesteaders’ land to graze their cattle. Shane sides with the homesteaders and over the course of the movie helps them basically kill the ranchers. Then he rides off into the sunset.
Tampopo is sort of like that if you swap out the homestead with a ramen shop.
And when we watch it you’ll quickly be able to see the stylistic and thematic elements Itami is pulling from Westerns.
You’ll also be able to quickly see that it’s satire. Itami is known for his satire as was his father, the director Mansaku Itami.
But, the question I asked myself when first watching Tampopo was why choose a Western style at all?
Itami addressed this in an interview with The New York Times in 1987. When he said,
'’My generation is the first one that experienced the gap between prewar Japan and a postwar life that suddenly had to confront American and European culture up close, ‘’ he said. ‘‘We share pure Japanese ways of thinking and also Western and Christian thinking, although sometimes they are in conflict. So in a sense it’s my generation’s role to look at Japan as though from outside.’’
And that’s what the Western is for Americans. It’s a genre that lets us step back and view American cultural values from the outside. It’s both foreign and comfortable. It’s a mirror that we like looking into. And Itami uses the same tactic in Tampopo.
So before I give too much away, let’s get started.
That was Tampopo.
There are so many things I love about this movie.
What immediately drew me to Tampopo was its playful disregard of rules–both in story and in style.
What’s great about Itami’s satire is that you can tell he truly cares about the subjects he’s mocking. He’s transgressive and loving all at the same time.
My favorite artists play along on this line. They’re in the community and considered legit but ultimately their works are those of goofball outsiders.
People like the filmmaker/skateboarder Spike Jonze, the musician Jonathan Richman, and the installation artist Robert Irwin come to mind.
In a video essay included in the Criterion release of Tampopo, Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting focus on a related theme of the film––amateurism.
More specifically, they define amateurs as:
People who combine obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in.
And really, we see that time and time again in Tampopo. It’s a homeless man busting into a kitchen and making an omelette, it’s the office underling breaking rank and ordering the food he actually wants, and of course, it’s a single mom learning to make ramen from a truck driver.
Now, stepping back and looking at Itami as a director.
Itami treats filmmaking with the same kind of scrappy amateur mentality as Tampopo and Goro treat ramen. He rejects the standard financing methods and insteads acts as a one man shop, fundraising on his own and using the profits to float his next projects. Here’s an excerpt from that interview in the New York Times,
From his office, he handles his business affairs, which include raising movie money on his own. That is not the customary style in Japan, where producers and directors hunt for multiple backers even though most films are made on what Hollywood would regard as a shoestring. ‘‘Tampopo,’’ for instance, cost only $1.6 million.
'’The reason I do the fund-raising myself,’’ Mr. Itami said in a mixed burst of candor and self-confidence, ‘‘is that I don’t want to share the profits.’’ These profits, in addition to his writing and directing skills, enable him to keep going, he added. ‘‘When I go to the bank, they don’t care if it’s a good script. They care if I have collateral for a loan. Nothing changes by having a movie that looks good on paper and might be a success.’’
Itami acts as a frugal outsider amateur, despite being the son of a well-known director. You see another example of this in casting. Do any of you know who the actress who plays Tampopo is?
Her name is Nobuko Miyamoto. She was also Itami’s wife.
And Tampopo’s son?
Yup, Itami’s real son.
This is all to say, I think one of the reasons why Tampopo really shines is that the values of the film are closely aligned with the values of Itami. It’s a true expression of a person within a time.
Another thing I find interesting is that Tampopo holds up over 30 years after it was made.
More specifically, I think the way Itami satirizes the preciousness and staged aspects of foodie culture in 1980s Japan is basically how Instagram culture is being dismantled today. Just like how the amateur caressing his pork is a punchline so too is the influencer taking selfies in front of wildflowers, standing next to ten other influencers doing the same thing.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is the Western at work, it’s the mirror that is both foreign and comfortable, allowing us to view ourselves from the outside.
And just to wrap up, I did want to address that shot during the credits. Here’s Itami again:
‘You must remember,’’ he said, ‘‘that food and sex originally are the same thing. Look at a baby. Love and sex for babies are combined with food. As you become an adult you see a differentiation begin, but not in Japan. Among Japanese, these two strong desires are not separated.’’
Every Frame a Painting video essay on Tampopo
The Making of Tampopo (documentary)