Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Tampopo

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 12, 1999

Oh? So you’re at a movie too. What are you eating?

Special features

Cast Information4

The “first noodle western”, involving a search for the “perfect bowl of top ramen”. Takes place in Tokyo, in Japanese, with English subtitles. Very funny and well worth seeing.

DirectorJuzo Itami
WriterJuzo Itami
Movie Rating8
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating7
  • Letterbox

Tampopo stars Nobuko Miyamoto (A Taxing Woman) and Tsutomu Yamazaki (Kagemusha). Both are very good actors, as are the actors in the “lesser” parts. Kôji Yakusho as the mobster (and Fukumi Kuroda as his moll) nearly stole the show in their “subplot”. “Subplot” in quotes because it implies a relation to the plot as a whole, and in Tampopo the relations of some of the subplots are thematic only: they deal with food. The various sensuous (sensual? What would Mrs. Dean Wormer say?) aspects of food are given over to the mobster and his girlfriend. They also provide a “framing device” for the movie, though the framing device and the movie blend towards the end.

The “main” story follows two truck drivers (or a truck driver and his sidekick), as they meet with Tampopo, the recently widowed proprietor of a “mom & pop” noodle shop. She’s a nice person, but her noodles leave much to be desired. So the truck drivers (Goro—Tsutomu Yamazaki and Gun—Ken Watanabe) and Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) join together in a quest for the perfect noodle soup.

This plot is structured much like a western: they fight to protect the lady and her son; Goro even wears a cowboy hat at all times (he takes it off temporarily to take a bath). And the ending is very western-like as well. The movie has been described as a “noodle western”, playing on both the quest (for the perfect noodle) and the joke (that it’s a western).

The noodle bar is originally, when the truck drivers first enter it, the hangout of some fairly seedy locals, one of whom has an interest in the widow--and is also the leader of the thugs. Turns out he’s an interior designer when he isn’t beating people up in noodle bars. Goro takes Tampopo’s cause in the bar, and initially does well fighting four thugs at a time, but eventually they wear him out. When he wakes up, he is in Tampopo’s home behind the noodle bar.

From here, Tampopo discovers that her noodles are not up to snuff, and Goro promises to help her improve her technique. They work on exercises, customer relations, and the competition. When that doesn’t work, they head out to the gourmet underground and get advice from the master. And so on, until they arrive at the perfect noodle—and the perfect noodle bar.

“Tampopo” is both funny and touching. It relies heavily on the conventions of spaghetti westerns. It both pokes fun at them and caresses them at the same time. It is also funny in its own right, not just as a satire. It manages in one scene to make fun of both western uncouthness and Japanese devotion to decorum, when a “finishing school” for young Japanese girls learns the correct way to slurp spaghetti.

It also manages to be erotic with food. There are various scenes between the mobster and his moll, but the most erotic is the most benign: the two trading the yolk of an egg back and forth as they kiss.

The video quality is reasonably good on this DVD. Apparently, Fox/Lorber doesn’t have a high reputation for quality, but I think they’ve done a good job on this one. Of course, I don’t have a high end television set—just a 27-inch JVC. But it looks very good to me. Oddly, on my computer DVD-ROM, “breakup” is visible going from the menus to the movie. On my standalone DVD player, this breakup is not evident. It is for less than a second, however, and isn’t a problem for me.

“Tampopo” is subtitled in English only. The subtitles are among the best I’ve seen, at least at face value. I don’t know Japanese, but the subtitles do not have the spelling and grammatical errors that plague other Asian movies, and the English always makes sense to have been said.

There are no extras, except for a small amount of text about the principal actors and the director. Personally, I think that a “noodle soup” cooking show would go over very well!

This is a very enjoyable movie, and I strongly recommend it.

Recommendation: Purchase

DirectorJuzo Itami
WriterJuzo Itami
ActorsTsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe
Spoken languageJapanese
Special FeatureCast Information
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If you enjoyed Tampopo…

For more about food, you might also be interested in 2020 in Food, My Year in Food: 2021, My year in food: 2022, My Year in Food: 2023, Padgett Sunday Supper Club, and Club recipe archive.

For more about Japanese, you might also be interested in The Seven Samurai, Tokyo Drifter, and Japanese Country Cookbook.