Some of the best films about food not only include food itself, but the reasons why it is essential, especially when it comes to culture, love, and satisfaction. Films about food can be entertaining, delectable, and hypnotic, such as Babette's Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), and Like Water For Chocolate (1994). However, as great as those films still are, I think Juzo Itami's 1985 classic, Tampopo, outshines them all. It is an endearing, sensual, and tasty 114-minute experience at the movies.
Although the film is centered on the titular character Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), it is really a series of vignettes or small character studies in which different individuals including a gangster and his mistress, enjoy food in sometimes the most erotic, humorous, and somber ways. Tampopo is a widowed mother who owns a noodle-shop that is faltering, and she seeks help from two truck drivers, a local senshi, and a limo driver, to create the perfect ramen recipe. Eventually each subplot comes together to show how food shapes lives and has become even more essential to Japanese culture than ever before.
Judging by the much deserved acclaim that Tampopo receives, I was pleasantly surprised by how the humor (never descending into vulgarity) accentuates the atmosphere and makes the entire film more universal. Memorable moments include an etiquette class being hilariously interrupted by a male customer's slurping, which delves into more chaos as all the students and even the teacher loudly slurp their food; the gangster and his mistress making love where he licks food from her breast, and where they both exchange egg yolk between their mouths; a business dinner going comically awry as the youngest member of the group orders everything from a menu when he shouldn't have; a man eats ice cream after getting his teeth grilled and gives the rest to a young boy who only eats healthy food; an elderly woman being chased in a supermarket after squeezing food, and most bizarrely, a man coming home to find his wife dying, but tells her to make dinner and she miraculously finds the strength to cook before eventually collapsing at the dinner table.
As usual, Criterion is the king of home entertainment, giving the film a marvelous 4k restoration and packing the release with many worthwhile supplements:
- The Making of "Tampopo", a wonderful 90-minute documentary from 1986, narrated by Itami
- New interview with Miyamoto
- New interview with food stylist Seiko Ogawa
- New interviews with ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki and chefs Sam White, Raynell De Guzman, Jerry Jaksich, and Ivan Orkin
- Rubber Band Pistol, Itami's 1962 debut short film
- New video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos on the film's themes of self-improvement and mastery of a craft
- Plus a great new essay by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore.
What else can I say about this film? I absolutely loved it, and found myself laughing, but also being really moved by its overall message of nourishment and humanism. I have nothing but extremely positive things to say about it. Now if you excuse me, there is a giant blow of ramen noodles with my name on it. Enjoy the feast!