Japanese films have commented before on the intrinsic connection between food and sex, but not with the erotic gusto of Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (at the Fine Arts) and rarely with the comic lustiness of this broad-scale satire.
Every movie style is, if you’ll excuse it, grist for writer-director Itami’s mill: the handsome white-suited gangster and his delectable moll; the cowboy loner who strides on the scene to set things straight for the widder-woman; her little boy who will learn to be a man under the cowboy’s straight gaze; and Zen mastery as applied to the noodle bowl.
Itami plays with the form of his film like noodle dough, stretching it, snapping it, hanging it out to dry. It is a movie within a movie, a story within a story--several of those shaggy dog stories at best. What’s delightfully unsettling about “Tampopo” is its lubricious mix of the sensual and the satiric; no sooner do we settle ourselves for one when the other comes along to knock the props out from under our expectations.
Our gangster and his moll open the film, preparing themselves to watch a movie with a buffet dinner served at their seats at the snap of his fingers. Woe betide anyone who crunches a curry-flavored potato chip; he may indulge in freshly popped champagne himself, but the gangster demands absolute silence during his film. And so begins the story of Goro and Tampopo, the “cowboy” and the lady.
The tough, magnetic Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is the Clint Eastwood-like trucker who blows into Tampopo’s grungy noodle shop one rainy night with his young sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe). When the demure, widowed Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) begs for an honest appraisal of her noodles, she’s told that they have sincerity, but they lack guts.
It’s all she needs to hear. It’s clear from his style and his laconic mastery of food and fighting that the rain has brought a rare man to Tampopo’s door. She implores him to stay, to teach her, so that her noodle shop can be the best in all Tokyo. And so, glancing at her from under his cowboy hat, Goro agrees.
Time trials, training, sweat suits and the arms-up landing of a gymnastics competitor: Itami has a little fun with Olympics documentaries here. Then as little peregrinations off the path, he brings back the gangster and his girl; an O’Henry-esque tale of an elderly teacher who savors moo shu pork beyond anything and a band of food-wise street people--stories linked only by their gourmand’s pleasure in sex or food, or startling combinations of the two.
In addition to his sensuous vignettes on food, Itami begins to play with the film’s three strongest elements: the warmth and earnestness of Little Dandelion, (the literal translation of Tampopo ), striving selflessly for perfection; the growing attraction between her and Goro, and the classic form of the Western, which dictates that men do what men do, and women are a whole other thing altogether .
In addition to Itami’s three endearing principals, the cast is a veritable plum pudding of distinguished names in Japanese film, many of whom may be familiar from the classics of Ozu and Kurosawa. They include the frail, elegant Ryutaro Otomo (who died during the film’s production) as the Master of Ramen Eating; Shuji Otaki, the Maker of Turtle Soup; Masahiko Tsugawa, the market manager driven mad by the woman who pinches every piece of food in his store.
Itami himself is very much the irreverent new blood on the Japanese cinema scene. In scenes like the covey of businessmen ordering food in a follow-the-leader queue or the school of manners for young corporate brides being taught to guard against the slightest sl-uur-ping sound while eating Italian spaghetti, he has a lethal eye for his country’s corseted conventions.
And when he stages a moment like the one at the ocean’s edge between the oyster girl and the gangster, in which the viscous opened oyster she offers him, its briny liquid and a single, red, pearl-like drop of blood all mingle tremblingly, he manages to short-circuit most of our senses at once. (The film is Times-rated: Mature for nudity and a high saline content.)