I remembered this film, or possibly its successor The Salt of Life (2011), when I was given a DVD of it by a friend (who often finds interesting DVDs in London charity shops). This is a U Certificate film running just 75 minutes so its something anyone can watch. We sat down with it on a Saturday night when TV is virtually unwatchable (if you aren’t following the serial on BBC4). Watching it with the lockdown in Italy was an emotional experience.
Writer–director Gianni Di Gregorio had been an actor and writer with experience in theatre and film before he made this film as his directorial début. At roughly the same time he also worked on the rather different Gomorra for director Matteo Garrone (who, in turn produced this film). Di Gregorio also plays the central character in Mid-August Lunch and the main ‘action’ is set in his own flat. Playing what seems like a barely changed version of himself, Gianni is struggling to maintain his flat which houses him and his 93 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He owes back-rent and payments for various facilities but as the ancient festival of Ferragosto approaches, his landlord’s agent offers him a deal. If he will look after the agent’s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) over the the two nights of the festival, the agent will waive the amenities payments and the back-rent. Gianni feels he has to agree, but when the mother arrives she brings a second ‘guest’, Maria, the agent’s aunt. And then, to cap it all, Gianni’s doctor comes up with a similar proposal, depositing his mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) with strict instructions about medication and diet. Gianni finds himself catering for four elderly ladies and trying to keep them amused.
There isn’t really any plot to speak of. The three ‘guests’ plus Gianni’s mother, are all presented as ‘ordinary people’ with the kinds of likes and dislikes we all have. They want to watch TV or they want quiet. They don’t want to abide by the ‘rules’ that Gianni has been given, especially about what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. But they are also gregarious and flirtatious. Fortunately, Gianni has two great qualities. He is able to remain calm under pressure and he appears to be both an imaginative and efficient cook. Both of these qualities are perhaps only maintained by copious imbibing of white wine. In my limited experience of Italian film, TV and literature, a small glass of white wine is an essential part of daily life, capable of keeping most horrors at bay.
One of the great pleasures of this film, apart from the interactions of the characters is its presentation of Italian food culture. It appears to me that Italians generally eat very well. They take care to eat interesting things and they are prepared to pay for good quality provisions in local shops. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Italy so perhaps it is now over-run by fast food joints and German supermarkets? I hope not. During this time of coronavirus it breaks my heart to think that this eating culture has been disrupted.
I’m not sure why the Criterion print of Tampopo turned up in the Leeds festival programme but I’m glad it did because I missed it back in the 1980s. I think I probably got more from it now than I would have done then. The film opens with an extended gag about audience etiquette in the cinema featuring a dashing gangster (Koji Yakusho) in his white suit accompanied by his moll. The gangster sits on the front row and threatens the rest of the audience not to talk or eat crackly snacks during the film.
The opening gag is a marker for the unconventional narrative that unfolds in which the central story is ‘interrupted’ (but all in quite smooth transitions) by several unconnected vignettes – two more of which feature the gangster. The main narrative is associated with the Japanese passion for ramen – noodles. Two truckers operating a milk tanker return to their home city in a rainstorm and decide to drop into a run-down noodle bar. The noodles aren’t great but the driver Gorô (Yamazaki Tsutomu) falls for the widow running the joint and determines to help her make it the best ramen bar in the city. Ken Watanabe in an early role plays the trucker’s co-driver Gun. The ‘task’ that the duo undertake will involve various escapades until the widow Tampopo (meaning ‘Dandelion’) played by Miyamoto Nobuko becomes the proud proprietor of the best establishment in town. It will, for instance, mean collecting together a band of helpers – almost like recruiting the samurai in Seven Samurai. In the meantime we revisit the gangster and enjoy other food and class conflict-related vignettes. In the process we learn a great deal about the Japanese obsession with how food is prepared and served. And we laugh at the differences in food culture entertainingly presented in a scene where a Japanese tutor attempts to teach her students how to eat spaghetti without noisy slurping – which at that time was very acceptable when eating noodles in Japan (I’m not sure if it still is in Japan?).
The film is quite rightly celebrated for its comedy, though I’m not sure it is as much of a masterpiece as its reputation suggests. Still, I don’t begrudge that reputation and the film is certainly loved by its supporters. Tampopo is an ’18’ in the UK, partly because of some entertaining eroticism as the gangster and his moll ‘exchange’ foodstuffs, licking them off each other while naked. More importantly, for animal lovers, a small turtle is killed and prepared to be eaten.
Tampopo is directed by Itami Jûzô and photographed by Tamura Masaki who executes a much discussed final shot with a beautifully-arranged zoom to show the most natural form of human food consumption imaginable. It’s a very enjoyable film and reminds me that I haven’t seen enough Japanese cinema from the 1980s (and 1970s). Many commentators have made the link to Italian Westerns, partly because of the cowboy hat Gorô wears plus the music and other elements. The film is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.