Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)

criterion logoThe Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Tampopo.

The vow of two truck drivers to help the widow Tampopo with her modest noodle shop is just the start of Juzo Itami’s singularly hilarious political satire and intertextual genre mash-up.  The film’s strange brew of unusual characters and narrative asides includes gangster gourmands, food squeezers, pasta slurpers, vagabond foodies and some very kinky sex.  Lampooning conventional definitions of the Japanese identity with a joyful and eclectic embrace of individualist thinking, Tampopo bulges with social commentary while being a guaranteed recipe for provocative entertainment.

Disc Features:

  • New high-definition digital restoration
  • New Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack
  • New audio commentary with film scholar Tony Rayns
  • The Making of Tampopo, Toshiro Uratani’s 87 minute documentary
  • Juzo Itami: The Man with 13 Faces, Uratani’s 120 minute made-for-TV documentary
  • New interviews with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki and Itami’s widow and star actress Nobuko Miyamoto
  • Original teasers and trailers
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and an illustrated guide to Japanese cuisine by Oishinbo writer Tetsu Kariya and artist Akira Hanasaki

On its face, Tampopo is an ebullient romantic comedy about a milk truck driver mentoring a widowed noodle shop owner on the art of ramen-making; the film further enlivened by a series of food-themed asides that include a gangster gourmet and his lover finding new uses for their favourite ingredients, a lowly clerk who upstages his superiors while ordering his meal in a high-end French restaurant, an etiquette class on slurp-free spaghetti-eating, a con job conducted over Peking duck, an elderly woman mishandling grocery store inventory, a dying woman’s last act of cooking dinner for her family and the death of the gangster while he fantasizes of fresh yam sausages and watches “the last film you see before you die.”  In this regard, it is a clever and ever-surprising film, full of tender mischief and rife with intertextual allusions to other films.  However, Juzo Itami’s brief film career (directing 10 features between 1984 and 1997 before an apparent suicide many consider more likely to have been a murder at the hands of the yakuza) is typified with sly social commentary and Tampopo is not without an agenda for those attuned to recognize it.  The film’s narrative interruptions, its emphasis on non-indigenous foods, its celebration of self-cultivation (or seishin) and its disinterest with traditional family values describes a view of “Japaneseness” that embraces cosmopolitanism and individualism, rather than the traditionally Japanese image of bourgeois homogeneity and conservatism heavily promoted during the bubble economy of 1980s Japan.  Tampopo may be Itami’s strongest statement against Japan’s persisting view of an illusory national identity that is unique, united and impervious.  It is also his most widely acclaimed film and the work that established his international profile as a prolific voice in Japanese cinema.

It’s somewhat shocking that Itami’s films are not more widely available in the West given his critical success outside of Japan.  Region 1 DVDs of TampopoThe Funeral (1984) and A Taxing Woman (1987) are well out of print now and I don’t believe any of his other feature films have found release on disc in North America.  An all-region Australian DVD of Tampopo is currently available, although purportedly hard to come by.  All is not lost however, as a German Blu-ray of Tampopo was released last year with a modestly improved array of special features, perhaps suggesting that whatever impediments exist to Region A releases of Itami’s films may be more surmountable.


In considering a suitable cover treatment for Tampopo, an easy and credible choice is selecting the creators of Oishinbo, an award-winning and long-running cooking manga by writer Tetsu Kariya and illustrator Akira Hanasaki.  Oishinbo concerns the adventures of a culinary journalist and is notable for providing highly detailed depictions and explanations of Japanese cuisine.  Naturally, it seems worthwhile to extend a cover treatment into the included booklet, providing an illustrated guide of Tampopo‘s (sometimes unusual) dishes.  For example, Itami’s presentation of a prawn flailing beneath a glass bowl may seem simply like a perverse flourish to the unfamiliar who fail to recognize it as ebi-odori, a “dancing prawn” in strong liquor.  By incorporating a cover design into an included dish guide, a suitable cover treatment becomes a special feature unto itself and works to create a coherent dish featuring Tampopo as its main ingredient.

Credits:  For a deeper appreciation of Tampopo‘s cultural context and the socio-political commentary lying beneath the film’s madcap antics, I highly recommend Michael Ashkenazi’s “Food, Play, Business, and the Image of Japan in Itami Juzo’s Tampopo” in Anne L. Bower’s Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, wherein Ashkenazi goes into great detail on Itami’s selection of represented food and the social contexts which frame them, and Miguel P.’s “Tampopo: Food and the Postmodern in the Work of Juzo Itami” post on his Nihon Cine Art blog, wherein he argues that Itami embraces a multivocal, postmodern vision of the national identity contrary to the narrow, modernist view traditionally espoused.  Tony Rayns is increasingly a go-to scholar for the Criterion Collection when it comes to Japanese cinema and was an easy choice to provide a commentary given that he interviewed Itami for Monthly Film Bulletin in 1988.  Likewise, Jonathan Rosenbaum is another regular contributor for the Collection and is a good choice for a booklet essay given that he considers Tampopo a “must-see.”  I haven’t seen either of the noted documentaries, although they do exist (the Making of appears as a special feature on the German Blu-ray).

Tampopo fans looking for more Itami titles released by Criterion should check out Robert Nishimura’s post at CriterionCast proposing The Funeral for a wacky “C.”  Nishimura’s article provides some additional background on Itami and includes box art and a Three Reasons video designed by him.  Personally, I think this ranks amongst the best work of Nishimura’s designs and couldn’t agree more about Itami’s brilliance and the increasing risk of his falling into obscurity.

7 thoughts on “Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)

  1. Vick September 20, 2015 / 10:59 pm

    ¿the german blu-ray is good?
    I think it comes with a making-of.

    • spinenumbered September 21, 2015 / 1:20 am

      I believe you’re right, but I haven’t seen that edition – I have the Umbrella Entertainment DVD, which is decent.

  2. Dan O'Hara July 13, 2016 / 7:38 pm

    Coming soon from Criterion as it’s getting a theatrical run from Janus!

    • spinenumbered July 13, 2016 / 7:42 pm

      I’ve been eagerly anticipating posting a Criterion Made Mine! post for this title. It’s been a long time coming!

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