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Everyone has favorite lists of books, movies, music, etc. I'm just OCD enough to have mental lists in all these categories and more. All broken down into my own personal sub-categories which I mentally fumble over from time to time. Usually when I'm bored or stressed and trying to think the stress away. I turn the lists over and over like worry beads. A mental rosary of cherished objects. I roll them around like Humphrey Bogart rolling those ball bearings around in his hands as he sweated out questioning on the witness stand as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Sometimes while I'm doing this, I'll mourn over the loss of an out of print book (some of the works of Richard Brautigan come to mind) or music (Ars Longa Brevis by The Nice, for example) or a movie. For a while now, I have mourned the disappearance of many of the films written and directed by the Japanese director Juzo Itami. Particularly his paen to the sensual joys of good noodles, Tampopo. This film is on the top of my "Best Food Movies Ever" mental list.

Tampopo holds a special place in my heart not only because it seemed to enumerate the many facets of my love for food, but also because it was one of those rare films that reaches in, gives me a good shake and inspires me . This is not to say that it is a serious movie, just the opposite actually. It is firstly a fantasy rooted in reality with a sense of humor covering the spectrum from slapstick to sarcastic and nearly every flavor of laugh in between. It is also profoundly weird and profane in spots. There are cringe-worthy moments and moments of pure joy, and yes, moments of deep sadness. I first saw Tampopo on a rental VHS with my wife during the first winter of our marriage. We sat together on the couch in our drafty farmhouse totally immersed as a blizzard whirled outside and the Big Lake moaned and growled like an angry Norse god. We watched it twice that night. It made me/us happy and inspired me to cook like a demon possessed for weeks after.. The multi threaded story of Goro the truck driving noodle guru and his plucky single mother apprentice, Tampopo is one that never fails to get me a little stoked every time I see it. Eventually, I was able to dub a copy of the film on tape. By this time I had seen it in the theater when it came to the college-owned cinema as a holiday double feature along with another outstanding food movie, Babette's Feast. The big screen only enhanced the impact the film had on me. Over the years it became a tradition with us to watch the film a few times a year, usually during the winter holidays and in the depths of summer.

An impossibly young Ken Watanabe learns how to eat ramen from a master.

Sometime in the mid-00's the film drifted out of print and I was left with my old VHS copy and an even older copy at the local library. Since that time I've had occasion to recommend the film many times with the sad caveat that alas, as great as the film is, it is no longer available here. I tried to explain the intricacies of the film, its humor, its joy. Tried to explain that the director was a pioneer in the multi-layered, novel-like approach to scripting that Tarantino popularized with Pulp Fiction. Tried to describe the various wonderful characters. Goro, portrayed by Tsutomu Yamazaki, who commands the screen with warmth and strength looking and acting every bit like a Japanese Gregory Peck. Koji Yakusho playing the Yakusa, Man in White Suit gives a quirky nuance to his role as a criminal with a gourmand's sensualist soul. There are ensemble performances that are a delight to watch. I particularly enjoy the band of vagabonds (we call them homeless, now) who follow a noodle master and are all well versed in a wide range of culinary skills from wine tasting to producing French-style omelets at the drop of a hat. I love that this film contains one of the most ridiculous, sad, funny and profound death scenes I've ever seen in a film; a scene that sums up what it means to be a lover of the senses and a devotee of food. My powers of description always fell short of the mark, however and it never helped that the only local copies of the film seemed to be just in my hands and at the library. On VHS, which by 2005, most people had abandoned. I tried gathering members of my kitchen crew together at my house to watch my copy, but my home life was so chaotic by this time that even having a movie night with friends was likely to turn into a real-life production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring yours truly and his wife.

Since that time when I was drinking and my wife still lived, I have watched my copy only a few times. I always feared that it would break and I'd be left with the even worse copy at the library. Then my VHS machine took a dive and watching/not watching the movie became moot. I never replaced my VCR. Now, the copy of Tampopo sits on top of a pile of tapes of family videos in the fruit cellar of my house and every time I go down there (at least three times a week) I glance at that tape, remember the film and smile. I searched for DVD copies on the internet only to find a few wildly over-priced and questionable copies available. I found that the film was still in distribution in many countries outside the US - also available at high prices and bad quality.

Then one day about two weeks ago while I was at the library waiting for my writer's group to convene I was idly going through the stacks in the newly refurbished video section. I noticed that everything had been converted to DVD. I was thinking about asking what happened to the VHS tapes in the faint hope of snagging that old copy of Tampopo, and with little expectation I started fingering through the "T" section. I saw a bright orange cover with Kanji writing on the spine and something nudged me to pull that DVD out. I was holding a DVD copy of Tampopo. I literally started to shake and I dropped it. I thought, OhmyGod! If I've broken it, I will jump off the roof of this building. It would be just like Providence to take something away the second I have it in my hand. But no - everything is fine, the disc was unscathed. I immediately check it out and stash it into the safety of my laptop case as if there are people all around me waiting for the opportunity to make off with my treasure. The writer's meeting never occurs for reasons left for another post and I couldn't be happier. I rush home, pop the disc into my laptop and watch with headphones on while my kid sits next to me doing AP English homework. I will show her the film when she's ready to see it. Some of the scenes are pretty raw. Sex scenes involving food. I'll have her watch it without me around - then we might have a discussion about alternative sexual proclivities. I never looked at an egg, oyster or shrimp the same way after seeing Tampopo for the first time.

I watched the film twice and it was every bit as good as I remembered, which is no small thing. When I was a kid, I loved the movies Robinson Crusoe on Mars and First Men in the Moon. Saw them as an adult and couldn't finish either one because they were just awful. Not so with Tampopo - it holds up and will always be at the top of my mental list of favorite food movies. I'm so happy to have been re-united with this favored object of desire again. It's a small thing, but heavy with life. My life.

A vagabond breaks into a hotel kitchen and cooks a french omelet for Tampopo's young son.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you found it! Sounds very cool.
Dec. 3rd, 2011 12:57 pm (UTC)
I love Tampopo, and it has been so long since i have seen it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )