Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tampopo Cooks Up A Highly Entertaining Time

"Anyone Can Cook", as one of the most famous movie chefs once said, and that extends to widows who now own a small ramen noodle joint and are also the lead character of the Juzo Itami motion picture Tampopo. This joint is where Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) end up stopping for a quick to bite to eat while working only to discover a shop in dissaray that could use some help fulfilling it's full potential. Running this eatery is single mother Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a lady who is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to making her ramen noodle shop something special. Though Goro is hesitant to the idea at first, Tampopo is able to convince him that he can use his culinary expertise to help her improve substantially as a cook.

Goro basically becomes the Rocky to Tampopo's Adonis Creed as they work to improve both Tampopo's cooking and the shop she resides in. The screenplay penned by Juzo Itami (Itami also directs) isn't just focused on Goro and Tampopo's journey as mentor/apprentice though, scattered throughout the story are a series of stand-alone vignettes that share the common element of food. This facet of the film is established right away in the very first scene, whcih depicts the recurring character known only as Man In White Suit (Koji Yakusho) talking directly to the viewer as he gets comfortable in his movie theater seat. This little segment, which features Yakusho's character talking about how much he hates disruptive noise in a movie theater, feels like a perfect candidate to become an arthouse movie theater's new go-to pre-movie Turn Off Your Cell Phone ad.

It isn't just Koji Yakusho that gets the spotlight in various digressions throughout Tampopo. We also get, among other sequences, a group of businessmen ordering food and a darkly comic scene showing a dying woman cooking food for her family. This was an element of Tampopo I found to be entirely unexpected, but it's relatively easy to get into the groove of these entertaining deviations, which, in addition to serving as further examinations of how food can affect people, also deal with Eastern influences on Japanese society as well as offering up oppurtinities to frequently pay homage to specifically American filmmaking.

Some of those homages extend to the main storyline as well, including Goro at one point donning an attire that seemed, at least to my eyes, to resemble Clint Eastwood's famous wardrobe (particularly in the hat and poncho) from the Dollars Trilogy. The fact that Tampopo tends to mix together various cultural influences feel right at home in a story not just about cooks mixing together assorted ingredients but also people coming from various walks of life to unite. Just like it's tendency to cut away to stand-alone food-related detours, the fact that much of the plot of Tampopo comes down to strangers and even enemies uniting to help the titular character out was a total delightful surprise and one that lends the humorous proceedings emotional heft.

An inspirational undercurrent to this story feels appropriate given that Juzo Itami, both as a writer and a director, just seems to love so much about the world of Tampopo. An affinity for food comes through in the way the camera lovingly frames each delictaely arranged platter while he also carries a clear admiration for the film styles he pays tribute to throughout the story. As for the assorted characters, they're not the most fleshed out bunch of people around, with some supporting players like Gun not getting much in the way of personality. That being said, Itami still makes sure the key players of the story do have distinguishable and enjoyable persona's, especially in the case of Goro and Tampopo herself.

On the subject of Tampopo's character, Itami also has fun merging classical narrative archetypes with modern trappings (most notably in a mentor figure who previously occupied an extremely 20th century job). Once again, one can clearly see the recurring fixture of mixing together disparate elements in the story of Tampopo, a movie that realizes that that the process of combining two seemingly constrasting entities to make a tantalizing singular creation works just as well in filmmaking as it does in cooking. Being cognizant of that fact is a focal, though far from the only, reason why Tampopo ends up being such a delectable motion picture!

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