Traditionally, American audiences have not received Japanese cinema very well, with some obvious exceptions, including Godzilla and Hayao Miyazaki films. Another notable exception is Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” which garnered a coveted thumbs up from Robert Ebert. Tampopo’s premise is fairly simple. A truck driver, Goro, well versed in ramen happens upon a bad ramen shop run by a hapless woman, Tampopo, and when she realizes that he is truly a master of ramen-craft she begs him to train her, so that she may become a better ramen cook and show everyone her true capability. The movie is an effective parody, as it calls upon techniques and ideas from many various film genres, including Mafia, Western, and Kung fu. In particular, Tampopo’s parodying of Kung Fu, a strong was particularly spectacular, and gave the movie a far larger feeling than had it been a far less serious simply cooking movie.
Kung Fu movies typically begin with a scrappy young boy, who gets into fights that he cannot win, but gives off an aura of inner power. At their lowest moment, they find their way into the hands of a master of the Kung Fu art, who trains the boy utilizing arduous exercises that appear to be fairly unassociated up until the moment of the “final challenge” in which the boy demonstrates the culmination of his training by defeating a much more powerful antagonistic combatant. Tampopo clearly draws from this genre to make the ramen scenario appear more important and serious to the viewer. When Tampopo requests Goro train her, he quickly takes up the mantle of the strong master who clearly cares about the trainee despite the stern appearance he displays, which Kung Fu movies rely upon. The manner in which Goro scolds Tampopo when she does poorly is incredibly stern, yet you can tell that he simply knows she can do better, and in doing so he instills in Tampopo a large amount of determination as well a need to make him proud, which is almost always portrayed in Kung Fu movies. The most direct connection is demonstrated when the training beings and Goro immediately has Tampopo move her large pot of water back and forth, a classic exercise utilized in the protagonist’s training in Kung Fu movies.
By utilizing these classic Kung Fu techniques, Itami is able to not only make humorous jabs at the genre, but makes the otherwise trivial ramen cooking rather extraordinary and inspiring. The emotional reaction that the film invokes is very strong, and rather unexpected given the premise of the film. Clearly, Itami went to great lengths to create a film that will be well remembered for not just for its humor, but also as quality cinema. This is mainly in part due to his use of techniques from various genres, and the Kung Fu techniques’ effect on the film is palpable.