Coolidge Corner Moviehouse
Directed by Juzo Itami
Have you ever been to a movie where the entire audience stayed to watch all the credits roll by? Well, after Tampopo--the self-proclaimed "first Japanese noodle western"--the audience savored the movie to the last "drop" of credits. Considering that the credits were in Japanese, this is a tribute to Japanese, director Juzo Itami's latest film, a deliciously delirious and hilarious feast for the eyes and ears.
Why such unusual behavior? Because, as the credits pass by, the camera wanders into a Tokyo park, and focuses on a young mother breast-feeding her baby. The camera comes closer and closer, finally fixing on the mother's breast and baby's mouth. I, never a credit-watcher, stood up to leave. But no one would get up to let me out!
This simple, remarkable image--innocent, yet erotic--demonstrates the appeal of food and sex to the Neanderthal within us all. As Itami suggests, we experience the association of food and sensual pleasure in the first day of life, and we never forget it.
The rest of Tampopo--the word means "dandelion"--concerns man's pursuit of this association past infancy, until the days when pleasure threatens to turn into perversion, when hedonism runs amuck. "Tampopo" is the central character, a middle-aged widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) who is struggling to run a noodle restaurant despite being a lousy cook.
Her luck changes when a Clint Eastwood-esque stranger named Gun (Tsutomu Yamazaki) struts into her restaurant. She entreats him to teach her the finer points of noodle cooking. He consents, and puts her on a rigorous training regimen. He assembles, Seven Samurai-style, a group of gourmands to educate her in each different aspect of noodle cooking.
Pretty corny stuff, huh? Through the ridiculous plot line, Itami satirizes man's obsessive pursuit of pleasure in satisfying his basic needs. Itami sees nothing wrong with wild pleasure-hunting as long as the original purpose of such a pursuit--man's need to nourish himself--is not forgotten; in short, hedonism with sense. When this is forgotten, pleasure crosses the fine line into perversion.
What is doubly remarkable about the movie is how Itami keeps the audience so interested in Tampopo's struggles. The director garnishes her rags-to-riches story with elements of samurai adventure and Sergio Leone western, and then has the actors play it straight. Amazingly, it's a satire that involves the audience in the action as much as the characters themselves. When the noodle senseis test her progress after a few weeks, one finds oneself as tense and nervous as if one were watching a shoot--out.
Itami turns this meal of a movie into a feast by spicing up the main plot with a wacky subplot to make clear the connection between food and sex. Two characters who keep returning are a hedonistic gangster (Koji Yakusho) and his loving, ever-ready moll (Fukumi Kuroda). In one love-making scene, he dips her breasts in whipped cream, and in another he seasons them with salt and lemon juice before licking it all up. Later, he takes an egg yolk in his mouth; they pass it back and forth as they kiss until she climaxes, and the yolk breaks in her mouth. Sexual and caloric appetites are satisfied in a way that has the audience laughing while titillating them--further evidence of Itami's mastery.
While the movie doesn't achieve the full poetic vision of David Lynch's Blue Valvet, Tampopo does have a very different flavor to it not found in most, if any, American flicks. This unique feel stems from its Asian perspective on men and women, which is distinct from the Western perspective. Though Gun is set up to be a typical, macho western cowboy hero, he is no Pygmalion. The window Tampopo is neither a statue-like work of art nor an Adam's rib. She is closer to the archetypal woman warrior, strong and in control of her own destiny. The gourmands who are supposed to teach her cannot directly show her how to cook; they don't give her the right recipes. They only help her to experiment on her own to find the right soup, to add the right vegetables, to make tasty noodles. As the title suggests, she is the center and driving force of the movie.
So while Itami has fun with Western movie genres and figures, he remains distinctly a Japanese artist. Wild as he is, he stays true to the basics, and that's what Tampopo is all about.