Hailed as the first “ramen western” (a play on the term “spaghetti Western”), Tampopo takes that designation to it’s most extremely literal end, focusing on the title character’s ramen shop as the location of metaphorical quick-draws and high noon showdowns, as well incorporating a variety of loosely connected comedy sketches about food.
The main narrative concerns the arrival of truck driver Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (a young Ken Watanabe) at the barely-afloat ramen shop, Lai Lai, that widowed single mother Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) inherited from her husband. Under Gorō’s tutelage, Tampopo resurrects her shop along with help from a motley crew of unlikely allies: Shōhei (Kinzō Sakura), a chauffeur who has a way with noodles; “The Old Master” (Yoshi Katō), a former surgeon reduced to vagrancy, but possessing a nearly-magical skill with noodle making; and Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), a formerly antagonistic contractor who redesigns the interior of the shop, now renamed “Tampopo” in honor of its proprietress.
Interspersed throughout is the story of a white-clad gangster (frequent Kiyoshi Kurosawa collaborator Kōji Yakusho) and his mistress, who explore the erotic aspects of food. Other shorter one-off scenes include a salaryman upstaging his superiors at a fancy restaurant with his extensive knowledge of haute cuisine, a class of women being taught the Western way of eating spaghetti while a Western patron at a nearby table does the opposite of what their etiquette teacher instructs, a grocer pursuing a food-squeezing woman through the aisles of his market, a man dealing with an abscessed tooth, and a derelict making Tampopo’s son a rice omelette while evading detection by a security guard, among others.
Using tropes that one would normally find in Western genre films, Tampopo paints Gorō as the high plains drifter who wanders into town and saves a local homesteader, except that he does so with his cooking skills and not his guns (although his fists come in handy more than once). There are recurring Western-like themes, like the defeated enemy who becomes a friend (which plays out not just between Gorō and Pisuken but also between Tampopo’s son and the bullies who frequently harass him), the training montage straight out of the original Magnificent Seven, and even an ending scene that plays out as a virtual recreation of the end of Shane. This juxtaposition of Western archetypes and Eastern social rules and concepts make for a delightful and refreshing movie that’s sure to make you laugh and hunger.
Tampopo is available in several DVD releases, but, as always, the Criterion version is most highly recommended.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond