To truly appreciate Japanese rāmen, you need a brisk cold day in a city where central heating can’t be taken for granted. For me, it was a warm winter in Sapporo, Japan, walking among the ice sculptures and feeling the slap of cold air against my face that had only experienced Southern California winters. And you can’t love rāmen, if you haven’t seen the 1985 Juzo Itami film “Tampopo.” “Tampopo” is a rāmen Western set in Japan about a noble quest: Make a defining rāmen to bring customers to a lackluster noodle shop owned by a widow named Tampopo. “Tampopo” returns to movie theaters nationwide. In Los Angeles, “Tampopo” is currently at the Nuart.
While you might think rāmen is the quintessential Japanese dish, it’s actually a Japanese interpretation of Chinese cuisine. Rāmen is a Japanese soup with Chinese-style wheat noodles. During the movie, Tampopo sneakily acquires some expert advice from a Chinese person living in Japan.
While one might argue about the styles of udon and soba, with many regions having special twists and styles, rāmen noodles are basically the same. Rāmen noodles can be overcooked and undercooked, and they can be fried into an ersatz instant edition. Still rāmen noodles aren’t as diversified as soba or udon. For that reason, as one character notes, “The broth is the soul of rāmen” (スープはラーメンの命だ。）
Two truck drivers, Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and the younger Gun (Ken Watanabe), stop by a dingy hole-in-the-wall Lai Lai rāmen shop. Gorō rescues Tabo, who is being beat up by classmates. Tabo is the son of the widowed Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).
A man, Pisken (Rikiya Yasuoka) turns up and, with his friends, beats up Gorō. The next day, Gorō wakes up in Tampopo’s home. Tampopo asks Gorō and Gun about her rāmen which is sincere but lacking in character. Tampopo pleads with Gorō to teach her the art of rāmen.
Gorō introduces her to an old master (Yoshi Katō) and an elderly man whom Tampopo saves from choking on mochi lends her his chauffeur/chef Shōhei (Kinzō Sakura).
Pisken returns to challenge Gorō to a one-on-one fist fight and the two become friends. Pisken turns out to be a contractor and promises to rebuild Tampopo’s shop at a good rate. Together, the men all help her make the perfect rāmen.
As Tampopo is learning the art of rāmen, Itami inserts short food-related vignettes. A group of important business men are embarrassed by the knowledge of the least senior member of their business party at a French restaurant. A group of women (with Mariko Okada as the etiquette guide) are taking a class on the proper way to eat pasta but are influenced by the way a white man is eating instead. A dying woman cooks a last meal for her three kids and husband. A gourmet store clerk attempts to stop an elderly woman from squeezing cheese and fruit. A number of vignettes involved a white-suited (Kōji Yakusho) gangster and his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) playing erotically with food until he is gunned down in front of her.
What happened to the cast and crew? You might recognize a young Ken Watanabe as Gun, Gorō’s sidekick. Then there’s the guy with the funny name, Kōji Yakusho, who was the lead in the Japanese version of “Shall We Dance?” Below are some highlights of the cast. Director Jūzō Itami died in 1997 (b. 1933) at age 64. He won two Japanese Academy Awards for Best Director, in 1984 for “Osōshiki” (The Funeral) and in 1987 for “Marusa no Onna” (Taxing Woman). In 1999, he was given a posthumous Special Award for his career.
- Tsutomu Yamazaki, b. 2 December 1936 (Gorō):
- “The Funeral” (1984)
- “A Taxing Woman” (Marusa no Onna, 1987). Japanese Academy Award for Best Actor
- “Departures” (Okuribito 2008). Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
- Nobuko Miyamoto, b. 27 March 1945 (Tampopo):
- “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013)
- “A Taxing Woman” (1987)
- “Taxing Woman 2” (Marusa no Onna 2, 1988) Japanese Academy Award for Best Actress
- Kōji Yakusho, b. 1 January 1956 (Man in White Suit):
- “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011)
- “13 Assassins” (2010)
- “Tokyo Sonata” (2008)
- “Memoirs of a Geisha ” (2005)
- “Babel” (2006)
- “The Eel” (1997)
- “Shall We Dance?” (1996)
- Ken Watanabe, b. 21 October 1959 (Gun):
- “The Last Samurai” (2003)
- “Batman Begins” (2005)
- “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006)
- “Inception” (2010)
- “Shizumanu Taiyō (2010): Japanese Academy Award for Best Actor.
- “Unforgiven” (2013)
- “Godzilla” (2014)
- Rikiya Yasuoka, b. 19 July 1947, d. 2012. (Pisuken):
- “Black Rain” (1989)
- “A Taxing Woman” (1987)
- “A Taxing Woman 2) (1988)
As an ending note, my favorite Los Angeles rāmenya:
123 Astronaut E. S Onizuka St #303,
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Hokkaidō Rāmen Santouka
21515 S Western Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Rāmen
2015 W. Redondo Beach Blvd. C
Gardena, CA 90247
Ramen Factory By Yamadaya
1635 W. Carson Street
Torrance, CA 90501