Remember when I wrote about the Japanese remake of UNFORGIVEN and THE LAST SAMURAI and I was talking about how great Ken Watanabe is and how I wanted to see him in more things? Well here’s a movie as far back as 1985 where he plays Gun, a stranger who drifts into town and helps out by… well, to be honest he helps a lady improve her noodle restaurant.
And actually he’s not the main guy, he’s the younger sidekick to a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He doesn’t have that much to do. But in the opening he’s reading a book about the author eating with an old man who “has studied noodles for 40 years.” The scene illustrates a long, OCD process of eating soup with steps including skimming the surface with the chopsticks “to show it affection,” moving the pork slices and dipping them into the right side for later, and then eventually picking them up and tapping them on the edge of the bowl to drain them, even apologizing to the pork. It’s ritualistic, fetishistic, doesn’t make alot of sense, but it introduces the movie’s worshipful attitude toward food. And toward whatever you choose to value during your days on earth.
As the protagonist pointed out in my book Niketown, food is something you eat and then later you shit it out. But TAMPOPO argues for getting the most out of these basic things. Executing them at the highest possible level, showing them respect, enjoying them. If we could appreciate anything as much as this old man does his bowl of soup we would be living a great life.
Gun and Goro seem to think the story in the book is a little over-the-top, but they do have opinions about food. Not enough to be assholes about it like this guy Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka, TOXIC AVENGER PART II) who’s in a little roadside noodle restaurant at the same time as them and giving the cook, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) a bunch of shit. Goro hears enough and challenges Pisken and his friends to a fight outside.
Then he wakes up bloody and beaten at Tampopo’s house. She feels bad about the whole incident so she’s been taking care of him all night. I think she blames herself because she knows Pisken’s criticisms, though cruel, were not necessarily off-base. Goro and Gun admit that her noodles are not very good.
I don’t know if it’s his passion for ramen or his sympathy for underdogs, but Goro agrees to stay and help her become a better noodle chef, which is her dream. He shows her his opinionated ideas about the simplicity of the ingredients and how to prepare them. Then he actually starts to train her, Mr. Miyagi style. She has to move a huge pot of water back and forth across the kitchen over and over again. She has to master the speed of cooking, draining and serving noodles. He sits there with a stop watch and makes her keep redoing it until she gets her time down low enough. It really is a training montage like in a martial arts or boxing movie. The only thing missing is a Stan Bush song. He even makes her jog. I like that because I really believe jogging is good training for everything. Have you noticed that? Just being in decent cardio-vascular shape, having your blood flowing to your brain, being able to breathe better, it helps with almost everything I think. I recommend it. Thank you, Forrest Gump, for inventing jogging.
But her training goes beyond him. He brings her to other mentors, including an “old master” who lives among the vagabonds and teaches her how to make clear broth. They also go undercover to different restaurants to try to find out their recipes and tricks. They ask leading questions, even look through their garbage to figure out their ingredients.
There’s a great scene where the chef at another restaurant figures out that they’re spies because they just taste it and don’t try to eat the whole thing. He calls them out and Tampopo is flustered, but Goro tells them he can’t finish it because it’s bad, and unleashes a long list of criticisms: the noodles are too dry, they’re using dried sardines, and on and on. The chef is outraged and threatens to come try their soup. It’s the chef equivalent of one kung fu school or dojo challenging another. Beautiful.
Slowly they start to build a team, specialists in different areas. They even find a guy to redesign the interior, and he takes every detail very seriously, considering the perfect height and width for the counter based on the size of the bowls. The best part is he’s recruited through Fight Brotherhood. He and Goro beat the shit out of each other and then he admits that Tampopo is a nice lady and he wants to help improve her place.
I like that Goro keeps emphasizing “simple noodles.” He knows that being the best isn’t always being fancy. I don’t watch alot of food channel shit but one time I watched their competition for the country’s best donut, because two Seattle joints I like were contestants. The winner was Seattle’s own Mighty-O donuts, who are really good (and the judges just could not wrap their heads around theirs also being vegan). But alot of the competition had to do with coming up with unusual flavors. I forget if Portland’s Voodoo Donuts were involved, I know alot of people love them, and they seem to specialize in crazy shit, like I had one one time and it had Fruit Loops on it.
But to me the best donut is Top Pot, who did not do well on the episode, because what they do is different. Sure, they have seasonal special flavors and they have bacon and maple on Elvis’s birthday, but for the most part they make very traditional, fundamental, obvious donuts. And 99% of the time I go there I get the glazed old fashioned. One time it was late in the day I didn’t notice any in the case, so I asked if they were out. I don’t think they’d usually do this, but the guy checked in the back and brought me one fresh from the oven. It was still warm and it literally melted in my mouth. I really believed at that moment – and so far this has held out – that I would never have another donut that perfect again.
But it’s not hot-rodding around. No bells, whistles or doodads. It’s simple. That can be better than some crazy show-offy bullshit, trying to cover up its weaknesses with flair and gimmicks. A perfect, simple version of a classic. Goro knows what he’s talking about.
Like this review, TAMPOPO tends to go off on tangents, these little vignettes with other characters outside of the main plot, some of them kinda surreal, and always about food. There’s a couple who use food sensually (in one pretty horrifying scene they keep kissing and passing an egg yolk back and forth from mouth to mouth until it breaks). A class of women learn how to not slurp their spaghetti. An old man decides to give his ice cream cone to a strange child. The end credits are just footage of a woman breastfeeding. Some of it seems like weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but the baby is a pretty perfect way of saying “food has always been important to us.”
You definitely feel like you gotta have some ramen after you watch this movie. But the beauty of it is that it’s not just a love poem to food, but to any art or craft or trade or interest that you can throw your whole self into. You practice, you learn, you experiment, you try to master it every way you can. You find the best teachers and the best collaborators, the people who have chemistry with you and bring out your best. And you don’t just throw the ingredients into a bowl. You work to have the right ingredients, the best ingredients, prepare and combine them to perfection, and present them in the right way, the right atmosphere. It’s about striving for excellence.
Here’s what TAMPOPO wants you to do, and what I want you to do. I want you to go out there, I want you to find something you love, I want you to look over the horizon in the direction of the excellence. And then I want you to start just striving your balls off. Or ovaries. But the point is there’s gonna be excellence and there’s gonna be you and then there’s gonna be a laser beam of strive connecting one to the other.
Soup it up! YOU CAN DO IT!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.