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'Tampopo': A Delicious Morsel

April 22, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Food. When all else fails, it's there for us. When dating is slow or the relationship is sputtering, it beckons, steadfast and willing. You don't have to ask; food just gives and gives.

Juzo Itami, perhaps Japan's most inventive and curiously disposed young filmmaker, understands food, the reverie of it, its sensual essence. His 1987 film "Tampopo" (screening Friday night as part of UC Irvine's "Love the Whole World Round" series) gazes lovingly, comically, and sometimes even mysteriously, at plates, bowls and spoonfuls of it.

This is one small-framed movie that can be described as delicious, both in concept and execution.

The plot is strictly appetizer proportioned, but with subtle flavor. Itami's story revolves around the quest for the perfect noodle, as sought by Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a middle-aged widow, and Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a maverick truck-driver, and assorted cronies and confidants.

Their search takes them through Tokyo's noodle district and into odd, savory corners of Japanese culture. The picture spins out from the main plot at will, settling briefly on many ticklish vignettes.

Perhaps the most pungent involves the smooth gangster and his lovely moll who mix edible delicacies with wild foreplay in a swank hotel room. They find prosaic things to do with whipped cream but kinky diversions elsewhere. Shrimp writhing in brandy atop the woman's abdomen? That takes real erotic imagination.

In another passage, a man emerges suddenly, running through the street at night. He finally reaches home to find his wife dying. Before she does, she makes a last meal for her husband and children, then collapses with a satisfied smile. The family eats in tears.

Then there's the man with a toothache so bad he can't eat even his favorite dim sum. He visits the dentist and is healed after an elaborate procedure. Later, we find him happily licking an ice cream cone while watched by a young boy with a sign around his neck warning strangers not to give him sweets. The man hands him the cone, and the child guiltily indulges.

Strange and beguiling anecdotes, but Itami always returns to Goro and Tampopo. With them, as with the others' tales, his thrust is humorous and, more often than not, sexually tinged, especially when the gangster unpredictably appears (a hypnotizing moment finds him by the sea, eating a raw oyster out of a pretty young diver's hand).

A more muted lubriciousness oils the relationship between Goro and Tampopo as they slowly fall for each other over bowls and bowls of noodles. Through this central love story, Itami playfully arranges his movie with the cliched stylings of an American Western.

Goro is a Clint Eastwood clone, down to the beat-up cowboy hat and taciturn macho manner. Tampopo is the lady in distress, unable to keep her noodle shop afloat until Goro rides his truck into town and sets things straight.

Itami's re-creation of American cinematic style reflects satirically on Japan's fascination with our way of life while making fun of our own obsessions as well. It's a clever joke that holds up throughout this appealing film.

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