Released in 1985, Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” was famously a flop in Japan, but a hit abroad, especially in the United States, where it became the second-highest-earning Japanese film ever. This “noodle Western” about a rough-hewn truck driver (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who helps a spunky widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) make her struggling ramen shop a success may have been inspired by Hollywood models, but its take on Japan’s bubble-era (1980s) gurume (gourmet) boom was bitingly satirical and imaginatively unconventional in ways unique to Itami.
Too much so for Japanese viewers who were used to the broad, obvious gags of the era’s TV variety shows and comedies. It was also once one of the few films average American moviegoers would ever see — later superseded by J-horror and anime — as an entry point to Japanese cinema. Now, given the thriving worldwide interest in Japanese cuisine, it looks prescient — and still relevant.
Fortunately, New York-based Janus Films has been distributing a restored 4K digital version of “Tampopo” to U.S. theaters since October to loud critical hosannas, while its home-video arm, Criterion, is currenty preparing a release of the film. The company has also acquired North American rights to the rest of Itami’s catalog, which will hopefully lead to a re-evaluation of this self-confessed “un-Japanese” Japanese filmmaker who chose, at the risk of his life, to tell the truth rather than peddle the comforting fictions of the industry’s mainstream.
For more information, visit www.janusfilms.com/films/1824