A film review: What the 'Tampopo' is going on here?!

Original title: タンポポ (Dandelion)
Language: Japanese
Director & writer: Juzo Itami
Producers: Juzo Itami, Seigo Hosogoe, Yasushi Tamaoki
Casts: Ken Watanabe, Nobuko Miyamoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Koji Yakusho
Genre: Comedy
Release: November 23, 1985
Studio: Itami Productions
Distributor: Toho

Ookay. The title of this post does NOT make sense at all; and so are some bits and pieces of the film I'm about to review!

See, our dear friends at Pusat Kajian dan Apresiasi Filem [Centre of Film Research and Appreciation] (one of these fellow is a lecturer of mine) on specified periods (usually in 2 months) would usually hold a screening on a variety of films from around the globe. For the entirety of these determined screening periods, a theme would be assigned.

For this September till October, they have chosen films revolving food... and boy what a starter they served as the opening!

HOW COINCIDENTAL IS THIS?! I honestly didn't even bother to check on the screenings' schedule, when suddenly... POOF! The first food movie is a Japanese movie! Which is exactly a day before the 38th edition of the Malaysian Bon Odori Festival in Shah Alam! Hot dawg! Ain't destiny's a beautiful bitch!

After lurking around the webs for some info I could use to give this review some credibility, to my surprise, this film also features Ken Watanabe, all young and noobish, in his early heyday in Japanese cinema!

It's also a no-brainer to know that I'm surprised... well, shocked to be exact, on the style of execution in both its main storyline and many unrelated subplots. Which makes this film... unmistakably Japanese!

Plot wise, it is really dead simple; a lonely woman named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) who lives with her son, has a humble ramen shop. But her business is rather stale; as stale as her ramen recipe. Suddenly, a couple of hungry truck drivers, Goro and Gun (Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken Watanabe, respectively) stumbled upon her shop and decide to help her business blooming. Along the way, they recruited several samaritans who are willing to also help Tampopo on her journey. Interspersed between this simple plot are various self-contained food-related subplots. Interestingly, the film is opened in a fourth wall-breaking fashion by an unnamed man in a white suite (Koji Yakusho), a character in one of the self-contained stories.

One rather peculiar approach that Itami-san has done here is more or less using Western tropes to tell a story about a ramen shop. Yes. Westerns and ramen. Totally unrelated; much like Takeshi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django's knack of clashing two totally different cultures in a single film. However, unlike Miike's Django, it is not a straight up Western with shootouts and guns and stuff; Itami-san instead uses Western iconography and elements in a 1980's modern Japan setting for Tampopo; these include a hero riding a steed (in this case, the steed being a truck with a bull's horn ornament at the top of its body) to a seemingly quite town, a damsel in distress (in this case, Tampopo is the damsel), and outlaws looking for trouble (in this case, Pisken [initially] and rivaling ramen shop owners). There maybe more, but these are the ones that I know of. Who knew mixing east and west is a good thing? I think this film actually succeeds even more than Django ever did when it comes to utilising Western tropes in a Japanese setting, and it works even better in my opinion. I guess it does earn its self-dubbed 'ramen Western' genre, huh?

As for my reaction on the side stories, well... I'm just... lost for words. I may not know about any of the issues that Itami-san are addressing about Japan's society at the time, but all I know is... my feelings are mixed. Most of it are just plain strange. Like... that man in white suite's freaky love affairs; both with his mistress and that little girl (I think she's a little girl... I don't know) he meets when looking for oysters. It's just... very hard to look at. And my boner is confused. Really confused. And that absurd straight-up dark comedy skit of the husband who rushes back home just to ask his dying wife to cook a meal for her family before her life ends. I am again... confused on how to react on that scene. I think I laughed so hard, but the situation was rather very depressing for the entire member of the family household. So, yeah. I'm not really sure what the hell is going on here, but I guess it just goes to show how Japanese deal with their life through the many functions of food. Or maybe Itami-san is just being critical with the government. Maybe. But I can't ask him now. He died. Not naturally, but through suicide. Crazy Japanese; just as crazy as this film is.

In regards to its focus on food, well... they got me good. Even though this is an old movie, Itami-san managed to capture the soul and sensation of food through tantalising close ups, crisp noodle-and-soup-slurping sound, and the mouth-watering effective explanation on how one should savour the food one is eating. My advice to you is that you should eat first before watching this movie. Or ALWAYS have a steady amount of popcorn and drinks ready throughout the entirety of this film. This is speaking from my experience, so I am NOT kidding when I say this. Too bad they only served cakes on the night of the screening. So, yeah. Damn it, Itami-san!

I guess that's all there is to it. Without the presence of the self-contained vignettes, Tampopo can still be a rather entertaining piece of entertainment for all, thanks to its anime-paced comic timing and funny performances by its actors. But what fun would that be? I think a roller-coaster of feelings should be in order for a satirical film such as this, and you should take it all in for the ride, or else it would be a straight out flat story. If you're a foodie and also a Japanese food enthusiast, this is one film you should not miss... provided that you can take the weird side dishes along with it. Watch at your own discretion, and keep this away from children's viewing at all cost; way too many disturbing imagery will be on display, right till the very end.

Thank you PKAF for this wonderful opening of the Sinema Selera slot! Looking forward to more movies by you guys these September and October!

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