The broth is pretty thin for a ramen movie, and Tampopo, clocking in at 115 minutes, overstays its welcome a bit. That being said, being unaware of any other ramen-themed movie as a point of reference, this still falls squarely into the must-see camp if only as novelty.
And novel it is: a pair of truckers (Gorō and Gun) brawl at a downmarket ramen shop. The proprietor Tampopo, nurses the former back to health after his beat-down. Gorō then enlists the help of a disparate group of miscreant ram-en-thusiasts to help the widow put her noodle shop on top.
But it’s a difficult proposition.
Chefs treat their recipes with the kind of care and furtiveness usually reserved for state secrets (or ignored by ex-Secretaries of State). So, in a bunch of episodic (albeit amusing) sequences, we get some low level ramen shop corporate espionage as Tampopo and company try to find the perfect blend of thinly sliced pork, scallions, chicken stock, sardines, memna and noodles. It’s mouth-watering just writing that.
They then give the decrepit shop a makeover in order to wrest business away from competitors. Tampopo, therefore, is basically an extended version of the Food Network’s Restaurant Makeover with sight gags. And the film looks the part — positively sumptuous. Criterion Collection and Janus Films did a bang up job with the restoration.
And there is a lot of compelling Japanese weirdness to carry the day — a set piece involving a white suit-clad yazuka member (the film’s narrator) and his lover, that catapult this into the memorable. To wit, they play a game of “pass the ice cube,” but instead, using an egg yolk. It’s pretty gross stuff, and had the TIFF audience squirming.
And there’s a food prep where a chef-mentor butchers a soft-shell turtle in a scene as an unnecessary and as unpleasant as any Italian cannibal genre film (Take a listen to us chat about Cannibal Ferox on the Really Awful Movies podcast).
Bottom line: there’s a certain effortlessness and charm to be had here, and critics are rightly raving about Tampopo, if a tad effusively. The Wall Street Journal said the movie’s “Right up there with Ratatouille and Big Night when it comes to peerless movies about food.” In our space, of course, we’d be more likely to cite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Eating Raoul…take that with a pinch of salt.
*** (out of 5)