Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

East Meets West (イースト・ミーツ・ウエスト, Kihachi Okamoto, 1995)

East_Meets_WestEast has been meeting West in the movies from time immemorial and though it’s often assumed that the traffic is only running in one direction, in reality the river runs both ways. Kihachi Okamoto was always fairly open about his love of Hollywood westerns, particularly those of John Ford, and even mixed a fair amount of wild west style action to his 1959 Manchurian war movie, Desperado Outpost. Returning to the theme almost 40 years later in East Meets West (イースト・ミーツ・ウエスト), Okamoto retains his wry, ironic eye but adopts a tone much more in keeping with the slightly silly exploitation cowboy movies of the ‘70s.

The tale begins with an American voiceover explaining the intricacies of the time period. It’s 1860 and America has been putting pressure on the recently opened Japan to agree to a trade deal. A delegation of two ships is shortly to arrive in San Fransisco which has also undergone many changes in the last few years after the influx of hopefuls during the 1848 goldrush transformed it from a peaceful fishing town to a dangerous prospector’s paradise. The situation in Japan is also turbulent and those who object to the recent foreign influences have a number of plots in motion. Once the boats leave a band of former samurai will assassinate the remaining official. The men on the boat will not hear of this until they return and the revolutionaries have also placed an assassin amongst those who will travel to America with the ultimate aim of assassinating the diplomat in charge of the delegation who was also responsible for the deaths of a number of “resistance” members in Japan.

However, everything gets derailed when a gang of bandits rob the bank just as the Japanese are about to deposit the money they’ve brought to seal the trade agreement. The group’s interpreter, Kamijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), takes advantage of his samurai training to cut down some of the bandits saving his own life but is unable to prevent them making off with the money. Taking to the road in the company of the young son of one of the bystanders who was killed, Kamijo becomes every inch the cowboy, standing apart ready to take his revenge. However, his mission is at times aided or hindered by an ace ninja working as a servant to the delegation, Tamejiro (Naoto Takenaka), who has accidentally ended up with a Native American wife.

East Meets West is a very silly film, it has very little in the way of serious intent but offers a fair amount of zany fun as its fish out of water samurai try to adapt to the ways of the Wild West. In many ways, it’s the classic cowboy movie as a bunch of strangers arrive and proceed to clean up the area which has become threatened by out of control bandit gangs. You have your mainstays like the lazy sheriff, meek vicar, and drunken doctor-cum-undertaker, the only difference is that the strangers are Japanese adventurers who fight with samurai swords and out of ideals of honour and justice rather than of survival or frontier values.

Indeed, it’s a little strange that East Meets West turned up in 1995 just a few years after Hollywood itself began to re-examine the western, re-injecting it with a little more realism and the grittiness and cruelty which filled frontier life but had been all but erased from the sanitised, romantic vision of the movie cowboy duelling pistols world. East Meets West references the classic western with its associated myths and tropes of clearly defined good guys taking down clearly defined bad guys to save the townspeople from moral and physical ruin. There are plenty of horse stunts and gunfights all offered with a kind of good natured (if sometimes black) humour that’s much more John Wayne than it is Clint Eastwood.

That said, there is a degree of cross cultural critique as the guys try to get used to their New World lives. Because English speakers have a problem with foreign names, Kamijo quickly becomes “Joe” and Tamejiro “Tommy” with Kamijo ending up with a little blond surrogate son and Tamejiro an enterprising Native American wife with whom he seems to develop quite a bond despite sharing no common language. Kamijo may have come to America with one singular mission in mind but once under the wide open skies he finds a kind of individual freedom that he hadn’t previously experienced and gradually loses his adherence to the rigid social codes of the samurai, exchanging them for the seemingly endless vistas of the ever expanding frontier.

Okamoto mines the dualities for all their worth – the chaos of the Meiji era contrasted with the organised lawlessness of the Wild West, yet East Meets West never quite transcends its western pastiche origins. With plenty of inventive and keenly observed comedy plus some nicely choreographed action scenes and excellent performances from the committed cast from both the English speaking American side and the Japanese actors, East Meets West proves an often entertaining experience but perhaps fails to offer the same level of social critique found in Okamoto’s previous work.