"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_tampopoRemember 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.

mp_tampopoBut 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!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 at 1:45 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Tampopo”

  1. “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.”
    I dunno, isn’t that pretty dishonourable for the “heroes” to do? It’d be the equivalent of someone infiltrating a dojo to steal the technique for a rival school, wouldn’t it?

    Cooking TV is a lot like sports movies for me. I’m not into sports, but I can enjoy a lot of movies about sports for some reason, just like how despite being a really fussy eater I can pass the time with cooking programs or shows like Man Versus Food despite them featuring stuff I’d probably never like. Of course the best is BBC’s THE GREAT BRITISH BAKEOFF. I saw an episode of that once where gingerbread is the theme for the week’s competitions and in one round they had to build something for their entry, so you get stuff like a gingerbread model clocktower, a birdhouse and an abandoned barn with gingerbread cake hay stacks and sprayable frosting as cobwebs.
    I’m also jealous of America for having IHOP.

  2. “Soup it up!” might be my motto for 2015.

  3. I’ve heard tales of the old Krispy Kreme storefront in Manhattan. It has a conveyor belt that would bring out the day’s freshly glazed and steaming donuts right around the time the bars started closing at 4 in the morning. By all accounts it was a truly extraordinary experience.

    i think about that donut sometimes. The one I never had.

  4. I’ll second Vern’s appreciation of Top Pot Doughnuts. I’ve only been to Seattle once but my hotel was a block away from the downtown location and I went in every morning I was there. Great crullers. Best of all, you walk another block and you’re at the Cinerama.

    Anyway, I’m sure Vern made a note of it but didn’t include it in his review but the man in the scene with the egg is Koji Yakusho, the leader of the 13 ASSASSINS.

    I just got this movie over Christmas on laserdisc, I’m going to put it on in a moment.

  5. Which one, Majestyk? The one on University Place? That conveyor ran at different times throughout the day. The donuts were pretty good, and did indeed melt in your mouth, but it was the smell that was truly heavenly.

    I did not know it closed down. I need to get to the Village more often.

  6. Pretty sure that’s the one. Like I said, I never actually experienced a conveyor belt donut myself.

  7. This is one of my favorite movies.

    Don’t forget the scene with the lovers where the yakuza dude puts the live jumbo shrimp in a small bowl of lemon juice causing it to kick like mad in the acid, then he turns it upside down on his girlfriend’s lower belly where it kicks and kicks, and she, well…

    Or the old lady food fetishist who has to go into the aisles of the supermarket and squeeze all the food.

    So many great notes in this film.

    Required viewing.

    It’s basically the classical Old West film (or Samurai film), where all the same plot points and characterizations apply, except it’s about *food*. Brilliant. This was also all pre-“Iron Chef,” this display of the Japanese taking food so seriously and playfully in media.

    The director, Juzo Itami, was a refreshing odd ball. He also made a goofy movie I saw about a quirky female tax agent exposing yakuza corruption, “A Taxing Woman.” Imagine the “The Pink Panther” but an accountant.

    He got in trouble with the yakuza a lot by satirizing them in his films. They beat him up and stabbed him in retaliation. Dude was fucking around with the wrong crowd.

    When he died he was planning a movie mocking a real life yakuza boss and his supposed connection to a religious cult.

    Itami supposedly killed himself because the press exposed an affair he was having (but his wife knew about it already). His suicide note was typed on a word processor, and then he “jumped.”

    Anyway, you have no idea how happy it makes me to see Vern review “Tampopo” on this websight. Thank you Vern.

  8. True story: I was in Portland for the first time, it was a Friday night, and I decided to get to know the city by just walking around and drinking one beer at every bar I saw.

    I came around a corner and saw a LOT of people lined up, with several employee-type people managing the line. It being Friday, I figured they were waiting for the doors to open to a venue. So I walked up and asked, “Hey, who’s playing?” I was met with befuddled looks, because no one was playing… This was the line for Voodoo Donuts. At 7pm on a Friday.

    I ate a Voodoo Donut… Well, half of one. They’re extremely dense, like a box of donuts smooshed into one donut, and after a half of one I was full. It had breakfast cereal on it. The donut tasted good, but it was like getting punched in the mouth with a pound of dough drenched in sugar.

    (By way of comparison, I can’t finish a Krispy Kreme donut either, for similarly overly-sweetened reasons, but the base KK donut is much lighter, in my own humble).

  9. I love this film, made my day to see that you’d reviewed it here! Personal favorite tangential scene is the businessmen ordering food in the French restaurant, but there are any number of bizarre and great moments.

    Happy Chinese New Year everyone :)

  10. Maxiao: Yes! Where the underling shows up his bosses and coworkers with a much superior knowledge of French cuisine.

  11. While we’re on Food Films, has anyone seen Stephen Chow’s THE GOD OF COOKERY? If that movie doesn’t make you hungry, nothing will.

  12. @flyingguillotine – LOL I have a cousin who’s moving to Portland, so I could conceivably be visiting the city myself someday, I wonder how I would fit in there?

  13. This movie used to be on all the time on late night TV and I think I must have seen the egg scene or something because I feel a wave of revulsion every time I see the word ‘Tampopo.’ It sounds good, though. I’ll have to watch it now that I’m older and wiser.

  14. I would also like to note that Koji Yakusho is in this, in a pretty early role (“Man in white suit”?). You know him from 13 ASSASSINS and BABEL, but I know him as the star in a bunch of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, most notably CURE and RETRIBUTION. He deserves to be on he radar of anyone who truly cares about the badass arts.

    I gotta say, I think this Tampopo idea of simplicity is one which applies to other art forms too — beer, music, film. Sometimes its good to experiment and try crazy complicated new things, and we’re kinda primed to be impressed by that. But In our haste to vaunt creativity, we sometimes forget how incredibly difficult it is to do small things right — to tweak those minute details so finely and precisely that you create the perfect iteration of something. While that involves some degree of fetishistic focus, mostly it just requires a lot of old-fashion grunt work, doing the same thing over and over and over until you know it intuitively, instinctively. Modern culture sometimes doesn’t give enough credit to that notion, and I think that’s a shame.

  15. The Original Paul

    February 18th, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Ok you sold me. I’ll keep an eye out for this one.

  16. Mr. Subtlety, any love for Koji Yakusho in Seance? That one’s generally regarded as lower-tier Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and from a single viewing, I can’t see why – pre-existing source material? Ghost fatigue? Doppelganger was worth a watch, Charisma lost me, and Kairo beats all without giving Yakusho much of a part.

    And if anyone needs a palate cleanser from badassery, Yakusho is unforgettable in Shall We Dance – which has the shape of a middle-of-the-road picture but feels detailed and heartfelt instead of assembly line. No egg yolks though.

  17. Li — no, I love SEANCE too, it just seems like it’s a little lesser-known and harder to come by in the US (I guess because it was originally a TV movie?) But it’s a great one. I love the way it takes the basic plot of SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and subtly turns its whole meaning around (actually, the version I saw doesn’t make any reference to the original, and I didn’t realize it was a remake until like 3/4 of the way through, when I realized how similar the plot and title were). Even by K. Kurosawa standards, it’s a dark and fatalistic one — it greatly reduces the guilt of the protagonists, but punishes them way more. Pretty harsh.

    (here’s my review of SEANCE, lest you doubt the sincerity of my love:) http://wearecursedtoliveininterestingtimes.blogspot.com/2013/12/seance.html

  18. Saw Tampopo in 1989 on German TV (3Sat or WDR not sure) and loved every Minute of it. Great that rarely watched Movies like this Gem, get mentioned here. Thanks Vern!

  19. Sincerity appreciated, Mr. Subtlety. Also have to say that your description of K. Kurosawa’s ambiance/manifestation of evil as given in the Retribution review is A number-one.

  20. Is it worth pointing out again here that the death of Tampopo’s writer-director Juzo Itami remains the subject of controversy? Officially a suicide, there are persistent rumors that he was thrown off his office building by yakuza who preferred to be portrayed on film as cool rather than comical. Jake Adelstein covers this in Tokyo Vice, his book about being a crime reporter in Japan. That book seems to be in development as a movie with Daniel Radcliffe attached. Now, getting back on topic (kinda), there’s a part in the book for a tough-but-decent vice cop who takes the rookie gaijin reporter under his wing. Ken Watanabe may be a bit too old for that part, but he’d be great.

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