Juzo Itami, the director of the Japanese film "Tampopo," may be the most impenitent hedonist the movies have ever seen. As a filmmaker, he revels in sensual pleasure, and the spirit of his film is exultant, orgiastic. The movie has been described elsewhere as "Zen and the Art of Noodle-making," but its spirit couldn't be less Zen-like. Itami isn't interested in detachment. He's a zesty, immoderate connoisseur of pleasure-taking in all its forms -- food, sex, movies -- and he jumbles them all together here into a hilarious concoction. It's half movie, half dessert-topping -- a film gourmand's lusty dream.
The movie, which Itami calls a "noodle western," is a rambunctious mixture of the bawdy and the sublime. Primarily, though not exclusively, its subject is food -- or, more precisely, eating. The main story is that of a dishwatery little restauranteuse named Tampopo (which means "dandelion" in English ) who struggles mightily to keep going the modest noodle shop her late husband had opened on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Tampopo is a willing but hopelessly inept cook, and she can't attract much of a clientele. One afternoon, though, a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) wanders in with his partner during a downpour and offers his opinion of her cooking in the presence of a gang of rowdies that regularly gathers there. His reward is a sound thrashing -- at five against one the match is hardly even -- but Tampopo, touched by his honesty, nurses his wounds. Also, it seems, his criticisms of her culinary skills have struck a chord, and soon she is begging him to stay a while and help her become a real master chef, to instruct her in the path of the noodle.
A compulsive talker, Itami doesn't restrict himself to the telling of only this one tale. Folded into his central narrative are a half-dozen or so supplementary ones, side courses, and Itami slips back and forth among them with slinky, unfussy ease. Itami keeps up a steady head of steam throughout, and the momentum he establishes enables him to veer off wildly in unexpected directions. Though it's only his second film -- his first, which he made in 1984 at the age of 51, was titled "The Funeral" -- he has already developed a free, fluid storytelling style that allows him to free-associate his way effortlessly in and out of his various vignettes.
As it turns out, Itami's approach, which reminded me of the deft grace that Bunåuel achieved in his later films, provides the perfect jokey structure for his gags. The secondary object of his attention is another couple, a slickly dressed gangster (Koji Yakusho) and his fetching moll (Fukumi Kuroda). These two are the pleasure principle's most ardent advocates; indulgence is their way of life. In one sequence, inside their hotel room, they wriggle on the bed, like sensation-crazed toddlers gone mad, applying whipped cream and whatever else room service will provide to heighten their delirium. In pursuit of even higher-flying thrills, they execute the film's kinkiest stunt -- a long, soulful kiss in which an egg yolk is passed seductively, gently, back and forth between them until it breaks, spilling the yellow all over their clothes.
The randy excess in this scene, and the one following where the gangster has a James Joycean epiphany eating an oyster out of a young girl's hand, gives the film its divinely libidinous soul. The movie builds on the kind of particularity of relish -- the feeling of food-is-the-world -- that you find in the writings of Calvin Trillin and A.J. Liebling.
When sampling Tampopo's noodles, Goro and his team of advisers, which includes the almost Babe Ruth-ish Pisken (Rikiya Yakuoko), who's sweet on Tampopo, and an old man with beaming, beatific eyes, referred to only as "the master," come forth with trenchant analyses such as,"They have sincerity, but lack substance." When talking about food, they wax florid with statements such as, "It's the soup that animates the noodles." Or on the subject of a rival noodle joint, "Only their welcome has clout."
What fuels the movie's comedy is its characters' exaggerated lack of perspective about their enthusiasms. The movie's ground is the ludicrousness of its characters' passions. It's a parody of the epicure's fetishistic rapture in obscure delights. Itami forces his characters to extraordinary lengths to feed their appetites. In order to attain her goal of becoming a master chef, Tampopo trains like a decathlete, with Goro acting as her coach. And to get just the right recipe for her soup, they're not above bribery or rifling through a successful restaurant's garbage to filch their secrets.
The characters are deliriously joyous feeders. They rally round their bowls like greedy pups at chow time, savoring each nuance. But although they are extremists with seemingly bottomless stomachs, they're not greedy, indiscriminate hogs. They drink in their enjoyments too deeply to settle for mediocrity. Only the finest, subtlest, most imaginative chefs can meet their standards. Even the gaggle of bums and vagabonds Goro goes to for advice rummage through the garbage at the finest four-star restaurants and, like true gastronomes, mull over their relative merits and lament the decline in quality.
Liebling once wrote that the "primary requisite for writing on food is a good appetite," and the same criterion might also hold true for enjoying this movie. The attitude that Itami takes towards indulgence of the senses is highly contagious. As the movie progresses, it becomes a sort of feast of delights, a gorging, an invitation to stuff your face.
The talent on display here is that of an impulsive, cram-it-all-in comic artist. Itami's pacing is like a stand-up comic's in a nightclub; he keeps the jokes coming, and the quality of the material is very high. But he builds on his routines in a way that's rare in live performance. The sheer impudent candor and naughtiness of Itami's jokes may bring the young Richard Pryor to mind. But Itami is Pryor without the anger and bile.
Itami has crammed his movie full of allusions and mini-homages to westerns. When Tampopo dreams that a visiting gang of ramen chefs from another restaurant comes to challenge her noodle-making skill, they stride down the street like gunmen out of "The Magnificent Seven." And when the time comes for Tampopo's final noodle exam, Itami films it like a shootout. (It's Gunfight at the OK Bar and Grill.) There are also comical western aspects in Goro, who functions as a sort of combination of Shane -- the mythical hero, who comes to town, sets everything right, and then moves on -- and the tight-lipped, Man-With-No-Name character Clint Eastwood played in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.
The gangster couple evokes potent movie echoes, too. The film's movie-movie allusiveness climaxes in perhaps its most eloquently outrageous scene. Tomatoey red blotches staining the front of his suit, the gangster falls in the street from gunshots, and with his girlfriend standing over him, wailing, the rain pouring over them both, all he can think about is food.
"Tampopo" is perhaps the funniest movie about the connection between food and sex ever made. But, as you're watching it, the movie's base broadens, and the parallels between the noodle-maker's art and the filmmaker's become richer, sweeter.
Itami loves his noodle-slurping food maniacs. And the closing shot, of a baby nursing at its mother's breast, is a marvelous final note. It brings everything in the film -- all the connections between food and sex and the consuming desire for both -- together in one image. It's a delicate, poetic, perfect finish.
Tampopo, at the Key, is rated R and contains explicit sexual material.