Juzo Itami’s meta-movie Tampopo begins in a movie theater, with its seats and audience facing the camera. A flashy yakuza, his moll, and their entourage enter from stage right, and strut down the aisle to the front row. The gangster—as cool, well-styled, and gorgeous as they come—sits with his sweetie. His entourage turns out to be a mobile catering service, which immediately sets a table before the couple, and start to serve cuisine and champagne.
As the gangster takes a first sip of Dom Pérignon, he peers directly into the camera, as if noticing “us” for the first time. “Oh, so you’re at a movie, too?” he says. “What are you eating?” Our gentlemanly yakuza begins discussing with us his annoyance at the noises people make as they eat in movie theaters. This is perfectly timed to a man, a row back on the right edge of the screen, crinkling his snack bag loudly. Dead silence, other than the soundtrack.
The camera follows the gangster as he—in a swift, single motion—removes his fedora, places it gently on his girlfriend’s head, strolls over to the offending noisemaker, and asks the guy, “Are they good?” “Sure,” the guy says, with no idea how much trouble he’s in, “they’re curry-flavored.” With the utter calm of the totally insane, the gangster says that “I’ll kill you if you make that noise once the movie starts.” To bolster the point, he yanks the poor man out of his seat, shakes him hard, and yells, “Understand?!”
The scene should be alarming, and it is, but it’s also funny. The gangster ultimately has a serious point—that he doesn’t like being interrupted during movies, because movies are supremely important to him, because he imagines that, when we die, our lives flash before our eyes like a condensed movie. “A life kaleidoscoped into a few seconds,” he says. “I look forward to that movie. A man’s last movie. I definitely don’t want it interrupted. ‘Darling, don’t die!’ and tears… I can definitely do without that.” A pause, as the lights dim in the theater. “Hey, the movie’s starting,” he says.
Our dapper yakuza knows he’s in a movie, that he’s a movie archetype, and that he’ll be dead by the end of Tampopo, the movie that he—and we—will start watching. So, before the credits roll and the second minute has passed, Tampopo has broken the fourth wall, and exposed all its loves—for movies, for food, for parody and self-referential comedy—that the movie will examine and lampoon.
As if thumbing its nose at the gangster, Tampopo only focuses on him occasionally. Itami’s film has a plot—two men help a struggling noodle-shop owner improve her restaurant—but its simplicity is filtered through spaghetti-western conventions. Even then, this story is broken into fragments and comic setpieces that have little to do with the noodle-shop woman. Except for the sporadically appearing foibles about the restauranteur’s progress, each scene seems disconnected from the other, except for the common ingredient of food. Itami uses food as a lens through which we can view and satirize contemporary Japan. Tampopo’s little comic portraits—each done according to such genre conventions as the western, the yakuza flick, the melodrama, the gross-out comedy, the pink film—add up to a large-scale cinematic painting of Japanese social mores and anxieties. Itami’s triumph, beyond his pitch-perfect recreation (ahem, parody) of various genres, is that he both satirizes conventions and reveals the emotional tenderness at their roots.
My favorite recurring segment involves our gangster and his sexy moll. They make love with food in a variety of astonishing ways, making fine cuisine into a fetish. (There’s a one-take scene with an egg yolk, and absolutely no nudity, that always gets me hot under the collar.) But, at long last, the gangster’s ways catch up with him. Workers drolly sprucing up the noodle shop are interrupted suddenly by the gangster, in the street under rainfall, getting shot. The shooting, bloody and cruel, jars. We never see the shooter, though the bullet-riddled yakuza turns to face the camera for mercy, so it’s as if Tampopo’s audience—and that audience’s expectations—are the killers.
The gangster collapses in a back alley. His girlfriend comes running to him, eyes flooded with rain and tears. They share one final exchange—watch it above—as he dies, and it’s the most tender moment in Tampopo:
Moll: Come on, darling! Don’t die! Don’t die!
Gangster: Have I told you about it?
Gangster: About hunting wild boars in winter… There’s nothing much for them to eat, so they dig up yams. That’s all they eat. When you shoot a boar, you immediately slit its belly and take its guts and grill them over an open fire… The intestines are full of yam. Yam sausages, you see? You grill them… And then slice them and eat them hot. [pause] Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Moll: Yes. They’d be nice with soy sauce and horseradish.
[Gangster lies back, near death.]
Moll: What’s wrong? Darling! What’s wrong? Get up! Get up!
Gangster: I would have loved to eat them with you.
Moll: We’ll do it some day. We’ll go hunt wild boars in the winter… Darling! Get up! Get up! Please don’t die!
[Gangster puts a finger to his lips and shhhs.]
Gangster: Be absolutely silent.
[He places his white fedora, slowly, on her head as she sobs.]
Gangster [smiling, staring into the great beyond]: My last movie is starting.
Yes, it is the most tender scene in Tampopo—that tonal register is so jarring that the film has to introduce it with gunfire and blood—but it’s not, in the end, that tender. Even as the lovers say goodbye to each other, they’re talking about gourmet dining. Even as a man dies, we can’t help but notice that he’s going out in precisely the way he didn’t want to go out—with raindrops and weepy melodrama and clichéd sentiment. Even amidst blood and tears, this scene plays, because of yam sausages, as macabre comedy. There’s even a symmetry that’s natural only to cinema—as at Tampopo’s beginning, he places his fedora on his lover’s head with a flourish. Even in death, he’s self-conscious, acting as if he’s being seen.
That hat flourish is Juzo Itami’s gesture of love… but of movie love, not anything beyond that.