Review for Tampopo [The Criterion Collection]
As long as I’ve been collecting movies on DVD, and lately Blu-ray as well, the epitome of the boutique labels has been Criterion, giving noteworthy films stellar transfers, and extras packages that have film aficionados salivating in anticipation. And in all these years, I have never experienced the delight of a Criterion release myself. That’s because until quite recently, Criterion didn’t release in the UK. Mind you, we do have suitably devoted boutique labels in the UK such as Eureka and Arrow, who also source the best possible transfers and rewarding extra features. In the last year, Arrow have diversified, and have started releasing in the US, so it’s only fair that Criterion now also release direct to the UK. My first Criterion is a Japanese movie that I have long heard of, but have never seen until now, Tampopo.
You’d think that there would be more movies about food. They say that the first taste of any dish is with the eyes, and with film such a visual medium it should be a match made in culinary heaven. Then again there is the drawback that that first ocular taste is all you get, and film acts as prophylactic for the real thing. After seeing a visually alluring dish, you want to smell it, taste it too. A film will have to do something special to overcome that hurdle. Last year I got to see such a film in Sweet Bean, a.k.a. An, a bittersweet piece of whimsy about a fast food seller trying to make the perfect sweet-bean paste filling for his pancakes. Fast food takes centre stage in Tampopo as well, although this time it is the noodle restaurants, the ramen stalls that deliver a favourite staple in Japan (not least for one anime ninja I can mention). There’s less melancholy and more comedy in Tampopo however.
Tampopo is a widow with a young son who runs a ramen shop in her late husband’s memory. She’s not all that good at making ramen though, as is evidenced when a truck driver named Goro stops off at the shop. Goro is honest in his opinion, but knows enough about ramen for Tampopo to ask for his help in turning her restaurant’s fortunes around. But she has a lot to learn, and not just recipes, for ramen is a way of life...
Tampopo gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer. The film has had a 4k restoration before coming to Blu-ray, and that tells in the image. It’s clear and sharp, with consistent colours. It’s stable and free of print damage throughout, or signs of age for that matter. There is a discrete layer of film grain, and in a rare scene there might even be a hint of flicker. It all looks as a film should on Blu-ray. That’s all good as Tampopo is a delight for the eyes, with all sort of culinary marvels teasing the senses on screen. The costume and production design too is impressive, and you can tell this is very much an eighties film.
The sole audio option is the original Japanese mono, presented here in PCM 1.0 form. It comes across well enough, the dialogue is clear, the action in the movie (there is the odd punch up) is beefy enough, and the music suits the film perfectly. There is the odd moment of distortion when voices are raised, but that’s probably an issue with the source. The subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos, although I feel the font used could have had slightly thicker black borders to contrast against lighter backgrounds.
The disc boots to an animated menu. It also makes your player hold its last position in memory after you eject the disc, which is useful.
Criterion certainly lavish us with extras, beginning with The Making of “Tampopo”, which dates from the film’s production and runs to 90:08, a comprehensive behind the scenes documentary narrated by director Juzo Itami. This is presented as a 1080i upscale.
You also get the Rubber Band Pistol short film, presented in 1080p monochrome. This is Juzo Itami’s directorial debut.
The trailer for Tampopo lasts for 1:55 HD.
The rest of the extras have been created for this release.
The interview with star Nobuko Miyamoto (Tampopo) lasts 11:10.
The interview with Seiko Ogawa lasts 15:53, and in it the food stylist describes how the various dishes were created for the film.
The Amateur and the Craftsperson is a 10:04 video essay on the film from Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou.
The Perfect Bowl lasts 22:20 and looks at Tampopo’s influence on food culture from a quartet of ramen restaurateurs, and a ramen expert.
These four latter extras are in 1080p HD.
I have only the check disc to review, and cannot comment on the final retail package or any physical extras with the release.
The first thing that Tampopo did was wrong-foot me, twice. A white suited gangster walks into a cinema with his moll, and sits at the front where servants wait on them hand and foot with a veritable picnic, as the gangster shatters the fourth wall for what turns out to be a pre-movie cinema etiquette announcement. The gangster does show up again later in the film. And then the film starts, or so you think, as an aged ramen connoisseur and his young disciple enter a restaurant where he proceeds on the traditional rituals involved in appreciating a bowl of ramen. It’s long, it’s involved, it’s fascinating, and it’s all in a book that being read by Gun, mate to trucker Goro as they drive to their next delivery, before stopping off for something to eat. If there is one thing that the opening of the film primes you for, it’s to expect the unexpected, and believe me, you won’t be disappointed by this film.
Tampopo is a unique, absurdist creation that delights and celebrates the culinary arts, as well as the enthusiastic appreciation of food. It’s a delight to watch, will inspire, tantalise, and make your mouth water, but it’s not just about the food. The tagline describes Tampopo as “The first Japanese noodle western!”, and the Western motifs certainly hold true. You can hear in the extras the film compared to Shane. The widow and her son, trying to run a ramshackle ramen shop against the odds, and the cowboy hat wearing trucker passing through, who stops for a meal, and stays to help her get her business working, picking the odd fight along the way, is all certainly reminiscent of Shane. But there’s an element of the Magnificent Seven as well, as a ramen amateur trucker has limitations on his own, and as the film unfolds, they wind up recruiting more people who can help, a homeless ramen expert, an elite chef, and an interior designer.
But there is also the absurd, sketch show comedy aspect to it, Monty Python crossed with Ozu, which makes this film so entertaining. Certainly the way Goro goes about helping Tampopo is funny, putting her through a Rocky style training montage to get her stamina up to the point where she can work a professional kitchen, paying visits to rival ramen shops to learn from their techniques, what they do right, and what they do wrong, as well as taste testing her latest attempts. But there is more to food than just ramen, and the stroke of genius Tampopo has is interspersing the narrative with vignettes revolving around food, epitomised most strikingly in the gangster and his moll (I told you they’d be back), as they indulge their senses in the most erotic food-play that you’ll see on film. There’s the spaghetti-quette classes on how foreigners eat pasta, where the prim and proper tutor has her every word undone by the foreigner elsewhere in the restaurant eating spaghetti the way he has always done. There’s the visit to the dentist that is almost as sensual as the food sex... until the dentist gets to the root of the problem. There’s the dying mother who interrupts her last moments to fulfil her duty to cook the family meal. I could go on and on. They are bullet-points of random comedy that contrast and highlight the main storyline and make it stronger, richer.
Tampopo is a rich and delightful piece of whimsy that celebrates and ridicules our fascination with food, with the appreciation of flavour, of presentation, the rituals that we create, even around something as staple as ramen, the Japanese equivalent of fast food. I can’t help but note the irony in The Perfect Bowl extra, ramen restaurateurs interviewed in swanky establishments where you’re probably expected to book weeks ahead, for food which in the film is served in simple walk-in bars. In my never-ending quest to find films unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, Tampopo is a new and much appreciated pleasure. If like me you’ve never sampled its delights, this Blu-ray presentation from Criterion is delectable indeed.