Monday, February 04, 2013

Opening Shot: Tampopo (1985)

The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows.
It can even be the whole movie in miniature.

In the very opening image of Jûzô Itami's 1985 film Tampopo, we the film's audience are presented with another film audience, a sparse one in a contemporary movie theater. Feet are up, newspapers are being read, chips are being crunched as the loudspeakers pipe in Franz Liszt's "Les préludes" to bring a classical undertone to an otherwise bland suburban scene. It's characteristic of writer/director Itami, son of prewar satiric filmmaker Mansaku Itami and former translator, essayist, TV show host, and actor, to mix such differing modes of high and low culture.
Like out of a projector, light streams in through an opened back door, admitting a company of smartly-dressed white-clad men and one woman. Thus "movieness" has intruded into this banal universe, refugees from a gangster film only the first in a line of genre-inflected characters and situations that will gradually make up Tampopo's freewheeling cast of types. The title of Jonathan Rosenbaum's contemporaneous appreciation in the Chicago Reader, "Food, Sex, and Death", encapsulates the major thematic strands that intertwine to form the film's uniquely playful structure, but just as important is cinema itself. In fact, it's the first of these four interacting elements to be introduced, and, after this bravura opening scene, the one that informs the movie most reflexively.
Taking their apparently rightful places in the front row, the boss and his moll are treated to an ritual of food and drink preparation by their three henchmen. Itami intensifies our focus on this increasingly ornate moment by gradually zooming into the empty space atop the table that will soon fill with meats and wine while framing the seated couple within all of this activity.
The camera thus far has tracked and zoomed but stayed otherwise facing resolutely frontward. In a comic detail worthy of Jacques Tati, the tallest, sunglasses-adorned henchman puts his now-empty wicker basket onto the table, revealing the hidden be-striped snoozer in the seat behind it in case we might have missed him as the gangster and his girl originally sat down.
The gangster has apparently noticed us, prompting the question of who is watching whom in what movie (has he sat down to view the same film we are, or is this some kind of two-way movie screen?). He and his lover reappear throughout Tampopo in their own little side-narrative, with frequently only an eyeline match to connect them to what will become the main thrust of the movie. This dandyish yakuza who can apparently see us is played by Kôji Yakusho, later to break out internationally in Shall We Dance?, The Eel, and the thrillers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of Itami's protégés.
In the beginnings of an offhand soliloquy, we learn that he's as particular about his movie theater ambiance as he is about what he gets to enjoy and imbibe while viewing. Up to this point, propriety in dress and demeanor appears to be the name of this man's game, and throughout Tampopo the "correct" ways to do things will be discussed and hilariously tested. The film is chiefly concerned with food's role to play in every facet of life, and it builds its many poignant and comic vignettes out of the intersection of gastronomy and the dramas of daily existence.
Right on cue, the gangster's most hated noise becomes comically deafening. The shift from close-up to wide shot has opened up the right side of the frame and of the theater to show our mild-mannered potato chip chomper. Heads swivel to shoot daggers in his direction, and the henchmen rise to fill more space and to even further unbalance the composition at the expense of the unwitting noise-maker. If not already, David Bordwell (who has blogged about the virtues of Tampopo's framing) is surely giddy about the movie's staging.
With eerily deceptive niceness, the gangster inquires at the pleasure of the hapless theatergoer then explodes at the answer. Note a curry-flavored potato chip's mix of Eastern and Western flavors, another core theme of Tampopo being the Westernization of Japanese habits. This outburst is only the first of many; the movie will begin later scenes and sequences with apparently normal setups only to detonate conventionality and conformity with subversive or anarchic humor.
Our etiquette-obsessed gangster, hatless now in his abrupt break from formality, tells us more of his pet peeves in another close-up, this time from the opposite side.
His next few lines are uncharacteristically philosophical and introduce another major strand of the film's thematic and aesthetic tapestry: death. He characterizes the end as a "last movie," turning life itself into a series of films to be savored, importing the care and concern he expresses for not interrupting his final vision onto his viewing habits for every movie he watches. Whether this "movie" is the traditionally-understood "life flashing before one's eyes" or not is unclear, although the yakuza's climactic scene near the end of the film reveals his "last movie" to consist of a gory but bittersweet memory of, you guessed it, food preparation. Itami's debut The Funeral is almost wholly concerned with the meaning and rituals of death for modern Japanese society, and Tampopo itself includes several sketches where food and death mix in unexpected ways.
So sex is the final ingredient in the film's mélange of flavors. We've already seen some playfulness between the gangster and his moll, cuddling and swapping hats. As the lights finally go down and the gangster is absently looking up, his cheeky embrace turns into something momentarily more titillating as his finger meets her mouth. It's a casual gesture, perhaps improvised by the actors but completely in line with the characters' amorous oral fixations. This suggestive bit of sucking can hardly prepare us for the culinary eroticism to come, but its neat coupling of food and sex hints at where Tampopo plans to go.
Everyone's awake but you get the feeling that only the couple up front will truly be enjoying what they see. Cinema, sex, death, and food might adequately sum up life itself for the inhabitants of Tampopo's universally recognizable but skewed comic Japan; each theme has been touched on in this opening scene's remarkable single shot (long takes and strong ensembles being two of Itami's specialties). All that's left is to hear the whirr of the projector and watch while life plays out.
Thanks to YouTube you can view this opening shot in all of its glory:

Post-script: Mike D'Angelo did a great entry in his Scenic Routes column for The AV Club on this scene, emphasizing some different aspects than I did here.

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