Tampopo ★★★½

"The next part is very important: I want you to quietly apologize to the pork. 'Until we meet again.'"

I'll take mine without the scallions, please. Weird ass bitter thing that takes like the bastard child of an onion and celery. Blech.

The "ramen western" of Tampopo ["Dandelion"] has enough culture and nuance to fit into the realm of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, that I'll make it the fourth movie I've watched to celebrate this month.

The offbeat film by director Juzo Itami is a rumination on culture, food, love, and sex, and a combination of these elements in a way done more skillfully than other comedies. While all ethnicities and cultures have important rituals based on meals and the preparation of them, Japan perhaps intertwines food and sex as much as any other people -- except, of course, for George Costanza.

Starring Tsutomu Yamazaki as Gorō and Ken Watanabe as Gun, two truck drivers with a ton of knowledge about Japanese food, Tampopo is also the namesake of a restaurant and its owner, played by Nobuko Miyamoto as Tampopo. They agree to help her perfect her dishes, stake out her competitors; meanwhile other vignettes see some named and some unnamed characters and how food is an integral part of Japanese life and love.

The loosely connected stories give a fun and frenetic pace to the film, bouncing back and forth from the main narrative to others, with ruminations of sensuality in-between that befit a uniquely Japanese obsession of ramen noodles. Add to that a liberal dose of sexual freedom and autonomy, and there's a lot to like about what's on screen from one moment to the next.

While the comedy has some great bits -- and some clever send-ups of Westerns and American humour -- at times it's simply too goofy and unrealistic. The jarring flip from silly to serious at moments can really work and breaks up the film from being one long slapstick fest, but it can lead to some disjointed and bizarre scenes that probably work better for a Japanese audience, of which I notably am not.

However, I did indulge in Willy Blackmore's essay for the Criterion Collection, and I found some appreciation in his writing, being a culinary critic and expert:

The appearance of a taco truck on every corner in the U.S.—a prospect infamously raised by a founder of Latinos for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign—would be a bit akin to what happened with ramen in Japan. Despite there now being a number of Japanese museums dedicated to ramen, fierce competition between regional styles, and local rivalries between shops like Tampopo’s, ramen is a tumbleweed in its own right, an import that has become woven into the heart of Japanese culture. The soup originated in China hundreds of years ago and was first prepared in Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the early nineteenth century (before the two countries went to war). After World War II, it exploded in availability and popularity when the U.S. flooded Japan with cheap wheat—a hedge, ironically, against the influence of Chinese communism on the islands….By the time Itami made Tampopo, the dish had become more than assimilated in Japan, which has had ramen celebrities since before Momofuku chef David Chang was born. But in putting the best cuisine into the mouths of his youngest and poorest characters, Itami’s vignettes skewer the notion that multicultur­alism is a privilege of wealth, and that taking pleasure in foreign fare must, with each silent bite, involve a disavowal of one’s own culture.

Literally reading that essay made me reevaluate the film as I began writing this. Instead of just the silly comedy I saw at first, I can now see the broader themes of inclusion, diversity, and sensuality; yet still within a unique culture only fully understood by those immersed in it. Still, much like George Costanza, I think I'll stick with the love between a man and a sandwich.

Maybe that's why I'm still single. Hey, any girls like egg yolks? I'll try anything once.

Added to Juzo Itami ranked.

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