Friday, July 7, 2017

The Samurai, the Chef, and the Sunset Strip

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 20
Juzo Itami (writer/director), Tampopo

A pair of rough-hewn truckers in Stetson hats pull up to a local business and defend the proprietress’ honor. Pretty standard Spaghetti Western fare. Except these truckers are Japanese, the proprietress operates a traditional roadside ramen shop, and the biggest trucker gets his ass kicked. We know we’ve ventured off the high-minded track from art house cinema. But don’t get comfortable— you’ve entered a roller coaster of upended movie conventions.

Writer-director Juzo Itami combines boilerplates from cowboy action movies and samurai films with Monty Python-esque slapstick, to create a rapid-fire comedy that has all the heft we associate with the words “foreign film,” and none of the tedium. His combination of Westerns and samurai traditions isn’t necessarily unusual; directors have frequently remade films from one tradition into the other. Itami breaks the mold, though, with his distinctly western-friendly humor.

That local business is a roadside ramen shop, which sophisticated Japanese cities have like American cities have coffee shops. They provide loci of community, places where people get together, share stories, make friendships, and scheme revolutions. Japanese communities lacking ramen shops try to lure new ones in. But this shop is failing, and its proprietress doesn’t know why. She needs a savior, and the truckers need a mission. Hmmm...

The lead trucker, Goro (“bull” in Japanese, played by Tsutomo Yamazaki, an Akira Kurosawa veteran), has drifted through Japan inside his truck, alone and bored. Like the best cowboys or samurai, Goro thinks he needs only himself, until circumstances trap him in one location. Rough-hewn and westernized, Goro doesn’t fit into the ramen shop’s clean white surroundings. Yet he feels a call to rescue the pretty young owner.

That owner, Tampopo (Japanese for “dandelion,” Nobuko Miyamoto, wife of director Itami), has fallen on rough times. Recently widowed, she struggles to keep her family business active while raising a precocious son unaided. But the pressures overwhelm her; her kitchen is a haven of comically misplaced food, which she occupies in a manner all flying elbows and panicked screams. She seems lost behind the counter, until the badly beaten Goro reawakens her passions.

Described in prose, the plot seems formulaic. This isn’t coincidence. Itami deliberately satirizes cowboy and samurai movies, the ways their conventions still dictate modern Japanese gender identities, and how trapped modern people are in traditional roles. Goro and Tampopo glom onto each other because they must, because they perceive their reciprocal relationship entirely in terms inherited from glamorous movies. Toho Pictures and Hollywood Boulevard circumscribe our life choices.

Nobuko Miyamoto (left) and Tsutomo Yamazaki in Tampopo

But Itami also introduces sly elements ridiculing those who’d break from convention, too. Between long blocks of his main plot, Itami offers quick sketches, timed with Monty Python briskness, of people trying, and failing, to change. A schoolmistress teaches girls to eat noodles quietly, like Westerners, but gets undermined by a noisy, slurping American. A junior businessman incurs his employers’ wrath by simply trying to order his own dinner.

The longest recurring subplot involves a flashy Yakuza (organized crime boss) and his mistress. In a string of scenes, many wordless, these two find ways to make sharing food an intensely erotic experience. Japanese culture has deeply conflicted traditions surrounding expression of sexuality, so these scenes feel transgressive. We feel weird watching their food-based intimacy, but they’re so genuinely inventive, and so altogether earnest, we’re also comedically hypnotized.

Goro and his boyish sidekick Gun (played by Ken Watanabe before his career got Americanized) gradually rehabilitate Tampopo’s restaurant, turning it into a gleaming citadel of home-cooked goodness. But the effort of rebuilding the business domesticates Goro; he becomes accustomed to sleeping in the same bed and having hot meals nightly. Like cowboys and samurai throughout film history, he both loves and fears the changes domesticity forces.

We spend the entire movie wondering whether Goro and Tampopo will ever escape the prefab roles they’ve fallen into. One moment, we think they’ll show some identity, then the next, they grab onto the familiar like a life preserver. Much of this movie’s comedy comes from these characters’ complete inability to know themselves. Life dangles happiness before their eyes, but they can’t imagine their lives different from anything prior.

With its mix of Western and Japanese elements, and its casual, conversational dialog, this movie has become a staple of college-level Japanese language courses. Though dubbed versions exist, please watch it in Japanese. The actors’ remarkably understated performances and deadpan delivery make this a comedy classic transcending language barriers. Its metaphors of food and relationship resonate, whatever language you speak.

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