Tampopo (1985)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, April 2018) My maternal grandfather is an unlikely reference in any review of a Japanese movie. After all, he wasn’t what we’d call a movie buff. He was a simple man, a farmer, someone far more interested in watching hockey games on Saturday nights than discussing anything that went beyond his experience as a rural Quebecker. But as a teenager, when I worked on the family farm for the summer, watching Saturday night hockey wasn’t an option and so we relied on whatever Radio Canada was showing as Saturday evening entertainment instead. Many times, this meant James Bond, Star Wars or other Hollywood escapism. But there were exceptions, and so I distinctly recall watching Tampopo with my grandfather, and him not only sticking around for much of the film, but audibly chuckling at some of the sequences. Considering that Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a vertiginously foreign movie that constantly references other genres, this is something of an aberration. But here’s the thing: For all of its ironic vignettes about food wrapped by a framing device that adapts the archetypical “stranger comes to town” Western plot template into a quest to rebuild a widow’s noodle restaurant (!), Tampopo is incredibly accessible … and funny. Everybody eats, and so whenever the film takes a break from its main story for a short sketch about people eating, it’s easy to be swept along for the ride. As a teen, I was immediately taken by the metatextual opening sequence in which a gangster in a white suit harangues other moviegoers for eating loudly. A re-watch as a middle-aged man unlocks even more of the film’s content, as the references to samurai or cowboy movies are better appreciated (it is, after all, famously called a “ramen western”) and the film goes on to touch upon other genres such as yazuka films. The film is uneven, as sketch movies are, but the main plot is unexpectedly captivating, and downright charming in the way it’s willing to procedurally explain what distinguishes great ramen from an ordinary dish. While fearlessly Japanese, Tampopo is also universal, and has a lot going for it for seasoned moviegoers even if it feels effortlessly captivating by base audiences. You couldn’t find a better illustration of that than my grandfather and I watching the same movie with the same amount of fascination.

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