The film is about to start, and the gangster in the white suit (Kôji Yakusho) enters the auditorium with his moll, sits down and prepares to watch with us. Before it all begins, a large meal is brought in and set before them, but he takes us into his confidence to inform us if there's one thing he cannot stand it is people eating noisy snacks in loud bags during the movies - and to prove it, he manhandles a chap behind him who has started to do just that. He goes onto explain that when he dies and sees his life flash before his eyes, like a mini-movie, he doesn't wish to be distracted by the sounds of somebody eating. Anyway, now we can commence, and a pair of truckers are hungry...
Writer and director Jûzô Itami was best known in Japan for making his quirky movies as vehicles for his beloved wife Nobuko Miyamoto, which made his eventual fate all the more upsetting as a Japanese tabloid in 1997 accused him of having an affair. Horrified that his public might believe this accusation, he penned a note and leapt from the top of the block that held his offices, and that has always coloured the perception of his work ever since, so it is with more than a hint of sadness that you contemplate one of his efforts. This one in particular, Tampopo, was what he was most identified with among Western filmgoers, as it had been a major arthouse hit once it arrived there.
As Japanese culture became popularised internationally in the eighties, this was one of those at the forefront of that spearhead, as it appeared they were going to dominate the worlds of business and culture for decades to come. To the West, this was a curious mix of threat and delight, as there was a raft of Hollywood movies that denigrated the Land of the Rising Sun, while the media of anime and genre pieces from that nation gathered a significant cult following, yet Tampopo was something different as it came across as so quintessentially Japanese in all its strangeness and humour that many found it irresistible. There was undoubtedly something very likeable about its perceived eccentricity.
Though it had a proper storyline, it was almost a sketch comedy with a selection of digressions to smaller vignettes, all of them humorous though some downright peculiar (sample punchline: "It's the last meal your mother ever made!"). That main plot had those truckers happening upon a failing noodles shop owned by widowed Tampopo, meaning Dandelion and played by Miyamoto; Itami described this as Shane with noodles, and the lead driver Gorô (Tsutumo Yamazaki) was that Western-style hero, as in cowboy, who decides her output is so poor he may as well help her out, which he initially does by saving her young son from bullies and then clearing the restaurant (if you could call it that) of ne'erdowells, all the better to concentrate on improving the timid cook's culinary skills.
Therefore while Itami claimed cowboy flicks were his main influence, there was a strong element of the traditional Far Eastern martial arts yarn where a student is tutored in how to learn a new skill all the better to improve their life and, well, beat up baddies. Tampopo didn't need to do that latter, thankfully, but she did hone her abilities with Gorô's advice as well as a collection of mercenaries, if you like, who line up to tell her where she is going wrong and eventually where she is going right, among them Ken Watanabe, the towering (in height) Japanese star of the future in an early role. This was not hilarious all the way through, as there were diversions into drama and erotica (the gangster's use of food as an aphrodisiac - any food he could get his hands on, it seemed, were some of the more memorable sequences for obvious reasons), but it with its depiction of the ramen dish it joined its contemporary Babette's Feast as one of the first big foodie movies. With one caveat: as long as you were not a vegetarian, otherwise its hands-on approach to meat would be a real turn-off. Otherwise, there was charm here. Music by Kunihiko Murai.