There is a regrettable paucity in the directional efforts of Juzo Itami. He began directing full-length films at the age of 50, a geriatric in Hollywood years, and yet Itami’s films convey a dignified exuberance. That his life ended in 1997, by suicide with an apocryphal note, is tragic not only for the canon of Japanese cinema, but for the world.
In his brief list of works that point the lens to Japanese culture, Itami’s magnum opus is undoubtedly Tampopo (translated, Dandelion). Films that attempt to synthesise a series of vignettes can come across as meandering and frequently fall flat (see: New York, I Love You). Itami deftly crafts a nested story, which opens in the Japanese equivalent of the royal theatre. But this is no Shakespearean trope; our host is a swaggering Gangster clad all in white, a waifish moll in stylish white lace hangs on his arm. They oil their way to the front row of the movie theatre, and any lingering doubts of the setting are whisked away as a team in matching linen unpacks a regal feast. As the Gangster is about to sip from the glass of champagne that has just been provided, he notices you.
He gets up from his seat. ‘So, you’re at the movies, too? What are you eating?’ It’s not that he cares about your answer (as if he could hear it), the Gangster simply wants to know if you’re going to disrupt his experience. Then he begins ticking off his pet peeves, when he is interrupted by the man two rows back. Lips smacking, fingers digging into crackling cellophane send our host flying out of his seat. In a moment, the Gangster looms over the man enjoying his deafeningly crunchy snacks. ‘Are they good?’ he sneers, asking yet another question that he doesn’t want answered. The seated man’s indifference to the hierarchy of the situation (one man with an elegant repast and the other with a bag of greasy curry chips) is infuriating, and the Gangster, shaking the unassuming citizen into submission, erupts, ‘I’ll kill you if you make any noise!’ Order restored, the Gangster slides back into his seat. His moll cozies up, and he finishes listing the house rules as the theatre darkens and the show begins.
Once the titles have rolled, we are taken even deeper into the narrative, and while the device of a story within a film within a film might border on tedium, Itami uses its structure to secure his whimsical plot. It’s difficult to resist the urge to describe each scene of the film in detail. Roger Ebert called them a series of smiles, and I might add that if they are smiles, they are of the Mona Lisa variety. At its heart, this movie is very much like a dandelion. There are many bright and silky petals to pluck (the movie clocks in at close to one and two-thirds of an hour) and while the way they layer on the floral base seems like filigree, there is a palpable economy, a well-developed taproot anchoring the film to a deeper meaning.
In search of this ‘deeper meaning’, I found the background material on Itami somewhat limited. However, as we live in the information age, the following facts are easily presented:
- Itami was once ambushed and mutilated by a gang of Yakuza thugs (reportedly for an unflattering portrayal of one Yazuka boss in a different Itami film).
- Following the incident, Itami committed suicide by jumping to his death and leaving behind an apocryphal explanation that hinted at a sex scandal. (This was in 1997, pre-Clinton, pre-Spitzer, pre-Weiner.)
- Juzo Itami is the brother-in-law of Japanese author and Nobel laureate, Kenzaburo Oe.
- Oe’s 2007 work The Changeling (US publication in 2010) is a semi-autobiographical novel that centres on the relationship between a Japanese writer and his brother-in-law, an acclaimed Japanese director named Goro (the same name as the hero in the Ramen-western Tampopo).
The Changeling is a fairly compelling piece of literature. It opens quite effectively with the filmmaker Goro’s suicide. The writer, Kogito, has been having a kind of conversation with the filmmaker. Goro has been sending Kogito cassette tapes on which he waxes poetic over Rimbaud, filmmaking, sex, and other topics. Kogito has created a ritual around it: Tagame, for the headphones on which Kogito listens to Goro’s musings resemble the giant Japanese water beetle.
As Kogito pulls us deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that Oe’s novel is crafted in a manner strikingly similar to Itami’s films. The Changeling vascillates between past and present, but the anchor to either is always what Kogito selects from his now finite supply of what Goro sent. The lives of Goro and Kogito have many real-world parallels to Itami and Oe. It seems that just as Itami winks at his audience, Oe also appreciates the opportunity to crack a literary joke. In the novel, we overhear Goro chiding Kogito for putting himself in his books ‘under some contrived pseudonym.’
Though the reader is confronted with Goro’s philosophical torment, Kogito also demonstrates disturbing tendencies. At one point, Kogito’s wife, Goro’s sister, implores her husband to take a break from Tagame. She tells Kogito that the ritual is sapping his sanity, and frankly, their son finds Kogito’s habit of responding to Goro’s recorded voice (which no one else can hear) worrisome.
The Changeling casts a sadness on the relationship between the characters Kogito and Goro, the work of Itami and Oe, and the real filmmaker and the novelist. Each instance is inextricably Japanese. Spare, minimal, conversational and poised, a country that castigated all things foreign for centuries does not produce works of art that lend themselves easily to translation. So then, we are confronted with the relationship between the audience and the art. The art is Japanese, but what is the audience? Does it even matter? I find that works of art concerned solely with their universal reach often fall short. Try to do too many things at once and you may fail at all of them spectacularly.
In this sense, the irreverence of Tampopo is all the more compelling. The film seems not to care a whit for who is watching, and the indifference to how its elements will translate in different parts of the world help it to exceed every limitation. That’s not to say that Tampopo isn’t a film about Japanese life; it surely is, but its themes are universal. The credits roll as a baby nurses at its mother’s breast. What could be more primal than a salubrious, nourishing meal?
Through meticulous direction, Juzo Itami serves Tampopo as one would a piping hot bowl of ramen. A pellucid broth, glistening with flavour, the foundation of noodles hand-rolled with sincerity and skill, and judiciously selected elements that both earn their place and vie for the spotlight in the dish. It is a shame that Itami left the world with such a limited menu. But, all is not lost. There are a few wonderful clips floating around the internet. And while there is always a certain melancholy that accompanies the end of a particularly fine meal, at least in this instance, you can always watch the movie again.