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The Exaggerated Joy of Jûzô Itami’s ‘Tampopo’

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A mix between the work of Nagisa Oshima and Yasujirō Ozu, Tampopo is a funnily mad and subversive Western. Like Oshima, director Jûzô Itami addresses taboo subjects, and so the film becomes rife with rule-breaking on a number of levels. Characters break societal norms and Itami himself breaks conventional rules of cinema with a Brechtian narrative and parody of the Western genre. Unlike Oshima’s films, however, Itami’s Tampopo has a sincerity to it that distances the film from dark irony. And so, the sincerity and camerawork feels reminiscent of Ozu’s work. Despite Itami’s constant disruption of the narrative, his visuals remain rather formal, although that’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve. During one scene, two characters fight under a freeway, as Itami slowly pans the camera out until each become miniscule figures against the larger backdrop of the city. In turn, the punchline of the scene becomes the absurdity of their machismo among the daily activities of the thriving landscape that couldn’t care less about them.

In making Tampopo a comedy, Itami doesn’t simply parody the Western and highlight taboos, he takes things to an absurd and genuine sense of extreme. The comedy therein lies in the characters’ behaviors and their way of taking everything so serious, whereas the audience can only laugh at the ironic melodrama. Itami understands this, of course, so the audience laughs with the film and not at it.

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The story is centered on a pair of truck drivers, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe). During one rainy night, the two decide to stop at a local ramen shop. Like all Westerns, the entrance scene becomes foreboding. Ruffians, drunks and other shady figures immediately begin to stare them down, and it’s not long until Goro gets into a fight with the head boss Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka). Despite the odds of battling five men, Goro shows himself to be cool, calm and collected, leading to the idea that he may just win. Itami doesn’t show the fight, instead choosing to focus on the grimaces of the Ramen shop owner Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) and her son. Once again, Itami plays with audience expectations by depriving his viewers of the classic Western bar fight and by having the hero lose.

The next day, Goro awakens to a nursing Tampopo who thanks him for defending her the previous night. He continues to play it cool but finds himself surprised when Tampopo begs him to become her teacher. Goro may not be great at fighting, but he shows a prowess for understanding how ramen is made. With Tampopo’s shop on the brink of failure, he takes the woman in as a student, promising to save her shop and to turn her into a great chef.

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One of the ways Itami avoids Tampopo becoming a Rocky-like story lies in his use of micro-narratives against the bigger story of the titular woman. There’s a breadth of characters throughout the film, and Itami devotes at least one scene to each and their maddening surroundings. Within these smaller stories, Itami establishes the absurdity, comedy and — most importantly — the taboo-breaking of Tampopo. A stranger feeds a young boy ice cream despite the child being adorned with a sign that says “No sweets.” A woman weaves her way through a grocery store, prodding and ruining soft foods. In another digression, a young businessman (among his older elites) remains socially oblivious when he decides to be different and order something else.

These stories seemingly have nothing to do with the main focus of Tampopo and her shop. Goro, Gun and Tampopo aren’t necessarily part of these group of rule-breakers, although Goro does operate outside of conventions when it comes to his teaching methods (such as his own ramen teacher being a homeless man — one who belongs to a bigger group of cultured and educated homeless people, contrasting their ragtag appearance).

And so, breaking the rules grants the characters a sense of freedom. Itami parodies the Western, twisting it into a comedic story about ramen and characters unhinged from the norms (like the director). The world of Tampopo reflects Itami’s creative styling of cinematic freedom, ultimately represented by the lead and her path of learning how to be a great chef.

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Goro’s teachings on how to make ramen seem to double as teachings on how to make movies. He tells Tampopo to watch other chefs cook and to incorporate their methods into her own. He brings on a group of experienced cooks to assist Tampopo, surrounding her with wisdom. When it comes to remodeling her shop, Goro takes into account the physical spacing of the bar so that the customers may be comfortable and Tampopo may be more efficient. In short, to replace the story of ramen with the metaphor of cinema, Itami highlights the idea of watching films to use their ideas in life, and to associate with people who live and breathe cinema, and so on. During a practice session, Goro looks around the kitchen and exclaims “I’m like a director,” further concreting the idea.

If Tampopo initially seems familiar, it’s only because Itami masks the exterior as a Western. From there, the film is a maddening ride of comedic absurdity and joy that offers a one of a kind experience.

Anthony Dominguez (@Dmngzzz) is an English/Film graduate from SUNY at Albany. His interests in cinema lie in independent and foreign films, as these works are less likely to be covered and consequently more likely to be forgotten. Anthony wishes to preserve their importance through his writing so others may discover these films. 

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