Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Tampopo

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Tampopo (1985)

Where does craft end and art begin?

It’s a perennial question of moviemaking—a process that finds its discipline in the technical aspects of production and finds release from that discipline when the result of the filmmaker’s labor, the film itself, transcends its status as “product” and crosses over into the realm of appreciable beauty and emotional power. In Tampopo, writer-director Juzo Itami’s foodie neo-Western that substitutes ramen for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti, the food that’s made to order by an aspiring noodle restauranteur (Nobuko Miyamoto, in the title role) is romanticized, even fetishized, as something beyond what’s crafted to go into our stomachs as sustenance. Instead, Itami celebrates the soup around which the film’s relationships is centered, along with a mile-long menu of other edibles, as objects of art that hold great truths about life, love and longing—objects you might be tempted to stare at for hours and, as one “ramen master” urges his disciple to do at the start of the film, “contemplate,” if only they weren’t best eaten before getting cold, or growing old.

Now with a new 4K digital restoration, The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray/DVD treatment of Tampopo includes “The Making of Tampopo,” a 90-minute documentary on the making of the film narrated by Itami; new interviews with Minamoto, food stylist Seiko Ogawa, ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki and chefs Sam White, Raynell De Guzman, Jerry Jakisch and Ivan Orkin; “Rubber Band Pistol,” Itami’s 1962 debut short film; a new video essay by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos; and an essay (or pull-out poster, if you like) by food and culture writer Willy Blackmore.

Tampopo is many things: a story of Tampopo’s quest for excellence, which rivals those of the finest sports dramas; a testament to the communal feeling that great street food can bring about in trying times; a tip of the hat to the virtues extolled by the cowboy drifter archetype; or, simply, a damn tasty feat of food porn served up feature-length. But the place in the film at which cuisine meets cinema, and art meets craft, lies in its vignettes, whose stories stand apart from the overarching narrative.

It’s these experimental side dishes of sorts, which work playfully and inventively to bring out the film’s heart and its many flavors, that we’ll take a closer look at here.

Lessons in Vignette Storytelling

Itami’s objectives with Tampopo, as he explains in “The Making of Tampopo,” were simple: “To make a film about food and eating… you might say it’s Shane, with ramen.” The film’s story of how two wandering truck drivers with Mack truck-sized appetites—Goro and Gun, played by Tsunami Yamakazi and a young Ken Watanabe, respectively—and their friends, both old and new, coach Tampopo to become her town’s resident ramen guru, surely delivers on this promise. Itami’s willingness to insert temporal breaks in this story in the form of vignettes, however, expands the film’s stylistic repertoire. It’s what allows him to create ideas and images that elevate the Live, love, eat, die philosophy that Tampopo and company seem to adopt as their daily mantra.

The first of Itami’s vignettes, which opens the film, takes place in a movie theater, where the Man in the White Suit (a gangster played by Koji Yakusho) and his lover (billed as the Man in the White Suit’s Moll, played by Fukumi Kuroda) sit in the front row before the film they’ve come to see begins. That the theater’s ushers wheel in a tray of delicacies to the couple, food that belongs in a four-star restaurant, is Itami’s first gesture toward the audience that something surreal is afoot.

The Man in the White Suit then breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience:

The Man in the White Suit (Koji Yakusho) and the Man in the White Suit’s Moll (Fukumi Koroda) talk to the audience in Tampopo. Images courtesy of The Criterion Collection

In this moment, Itami implicates the viewer in the action, and invites us to participate in the cooking and eating rituals that each character will engage in throughout the film. This scene is hardly the first in which a moviemaker has placed off-screen audiences and on-screen characters in the same “universe” of sorts to align their points of view, but what makes this technique’s usage in Tampopo feel so fresh is that it refuses to privilege the latter perspective over the former. The Man in the White Suit isn’t a Woody Allen character or a Scorsese protagonist attempting to persuade you to see things through his own eyes; instead, he lets it be known that he sees you through the screen, and wants to know what you would eat while watching the film. By exploiting the fact that each answer from every member of the audience will inevitably be different, Itami designs Tampopo‘s ode to “food and eating” in a democratized fashion that encourages each viewer to own their own style, rather than conform to the film’s.

With Tampopo‘s irreverence toward the formal conventions of film language now established, a number of Itami’s other vignettes extend the film’s critique of “norms” into a satire of social etiquette: A young man at a business dinner breaks conformity by being the only one of his colleagues not to order the same dish as their boss. A table manners coach attempts in vain to teach her class how to eat spaghetti in utter silence, before eventually slurping the noodles instead. An old woman hops through the aisles of a grocery store, digging her fingers into soft foods and running away from the store clerk every time he catches her in the act.

Itami seems to give each of his vignette characters some reason for why they do these things. In the case of the young businessman, he has a working knowledge of French cuisine, and the restaurant he and his co-workers are in happens to specialize in it. In the case of the manners coach, she’s convinced that it’s taboo to slurp in the West, until she and her students see a Westerner right across from them slurping to his heart’s content and give up on that idea. In the case of the old woman, well, not much backstory is given as to why she’s popping peaches like bubble wrap except that… hey, she feels like it.

Food etiquette is discarded in two vignette scenes from Tampopo

This devil-may-care attitude is ultimately what lies beneath the rules and restrictions that these characters are typically forced to follow. Itami’s vignettes give them a free pass to indulge their repressed passions and desires in fleeting moments of total freedom.

Stuck trying to convey your main story’s social commentary? Instead of relying on ham-fisted visual cues or on-the-nose dialogue, study Itami’s uses of absurdist humor, here, to learn the way in which short-form diversions from your film’s central plot can achieve this effect.

A component of Itami’s vignette storytelling equally as crucial as absurdism is surrealism—specifically, his surrealist mutation of food items into symbols that distill the essence of virginity, naïveté, lust, family and death.

In two sequences in which the couple introduced at the beginning of Tampopo is revisited, the two lovers engage in erotic food-centric foreplay that includes lemon-squeezing, trapping a live shrimp to wriggle on Kuroda’s bellybutton, and most famously, a soft-boiled-egg-yolk make-out session. These scenes are the epitome of craft and art conflated: Each food serves a utilitarian purpose, yet here each is hijacked to indulge the lovers’ sexual appetites, rather than their literal ones. (Once bitten, the egg isn’t even swallowed; in Tampopo’s restaurant, this would be considered wasteful, but in the lovers’ vignette, its yolk’s only purpose is to ooze down Kuroda’s mouth to connote orgasmic climax.)

The Man in the White Suit (Koji Yakusho) and the Man in the White Suit’s Moll (Fukumi Koroda) swap saliva and egg yolk in a vignette scene from Tampopo

Itami’s vignettes also afford the director the opportunity to play with tone. In a later mini-story in Tampopo‘s third act, a terminally ill woman is ordered desperately by her husband to cook dinner for him and their children, in order to distract herself from her impending death. The woman musters up the strength to make them one last meal, flashing a grin of motherly satisfaction before dropping to the floor. The age-old tension between audiences’ conflicting urges to laugh or cry, here, is the driving force behind this decidedly darker narrative diversion.

Once you’ve fleshed out your feature’s main premise, ask yourself: Does it tell the whole story? If you’re reaching to express something else, a spirit or philosophy that can’t be contained with only these plot elements, characters and settings, devote separate sections of your screenplay to addressing whatever that “something” may be in the abstract. For Itami, life’s ebbs and flows, and the myriad ways in which they are punctuated by mealtime, are what made vignettes a necessity of Tampopo‘s art and craft.

Special Features

Criterion’s supplemental materials in this package comprise one of the label’s finest releases of the year thus far.

Though its production values are admittedly dated, “The Making of Tampopo” is a thoroughly detailed and accessible look at the story behind the film’s development and production. Guided by Itami’s narration, whose voice booms like that of a proud parent as he recalls the collective passion for “manmade dreams” that his cast and crew brought to set each day, moviemakers and fans are offered glimpses into location scouting, set and costume design and a multiplicity of takes during shoot days to get a sense of the Tampopo team’s creative chemistry. Especially revealing for editors and composers is a section that focuses on the crew’s tedious but successful efforts to syncopate classical music movements with sequences.

Tampopo’s (Nobuko Miyamoto) friends down the bowls of ramen she prepared for them in Tampopo

Moviemakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos’ new video essay for the disc stands out as the featurette with the strongest insight into the “central thesis” of Tampopo—”People who eat ramen are all amateurs”—and how the curatorial and obsessive tendencies of the amateur are sometimes a professional’s greatest asset. For fans, this argument is a welcome analysis of the layers of meaning under the surface of the film’s light-hearted banter. For moviemakers, Zhou’s assertion is music to the ears—what is indie moviemaking, if not a profession for full-time amateurs? The video essay also reminds of Tampopo‘s fine line between art and craft, and that Itami’s crafting of the film is itself a metaphor for a bowl of ramen—centered around an “A” story (the noodles), and rounded out with “B”-plot vignettes for flavor.

Miyamoto’s interview fondly recalls her director/late husband Itami’s goal to surprise audiences with each of his films, and explains that her urging him to make the movie he wanted to make (as he struggled with its commercial prospects) led to the creation of Tampopo. The actor offers a convincing reading of Tampopo as an atypically feminist character in Japanese cinema history—a woman who achieves “psychological independence” by the end of the film by climbing up its metaphorical “ladder” with the support of family and friends.

Nobuko Miyamoto as Tampopo in Tampopo

Food freaks have much to salivate over in this package as well. The interviews with the aforementioned ramen restauranteurs explain the cultural phenomenon that Tampopo built over time in the culinary community, and the chefs featured in the segment aptly compare the film’s depiction of training and personal achievement to the journey from trials to triumph in Rocky. Food stylist Seiko Ogawa goes to great lengths to detail the aesthetic and practical choices she made when designing the dishes (which serve as co-stars of Tampopo in their own right), and shares a noteworthy anecdote on how she and Itami decided to use the soft-boiled egg that appears in the film specifically because of its firmness. (It wouldn’t break until Koruda bit down into it, she says.)

The inclusion of “Rubber Band Pistol” feels like a fitting nod to the origins of Itami’s career-long fascination with Western genre tropes, and Blackmore’s essay underscores the humanistic bent of the cowboy figures that assist Tampopo on her path to prosperity.

The Takeaway

Of course many people leave a film with quotes from its dialogue fresh in their minds, but the memory how one feels when the credits roll can often eclipse the memory of what has been said. In Tampopo, Itami wields an exceptionally keen understanding of this natural part of the moviegoing experience. In the same way that one can measure people’s enjoyment at the dinner table by how quiet they are as they stuff their faces, so does Tampopo gauge its audiences’ desires by offering vignettes—food for thought spoken in sumptuous, sexy and surreal visual language. MM

Tampopo was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD April 25, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection. 

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