Foreign Film February: Tampopo (1985)

tampopo poster

When I was a teenager, or maybe in college my brother asked me if I had seen Tampopo. I’d said I’d heard of it, probably seen it while flipping channels, but hadn’t watched it. He said it was really weird, but kind of awesome. He admitted that the plot – about a little restaurant that made noodles, something really foreign sounding to us Oklahoma boys – sounded goofy on paper, but that it was really funny and cool. I made a mental note to watch it and then never did. Until this last week.

It is funny how those things go. Why do I remember my brother telling me about a silly noodle movie from decades ago? Why does it seem like I’d told similar stories several times lately? I seem to be watching a lot of movies that made an impression on me as a teenager lately. Don’t ask me why.

Tampopo is really weird and absolutely delightful. The main story is about a couple of truck drivers who stop off at a run-down noodle shop owned by a pretty divorcee, with a young son. They decide to help the poor lady out and enlist some friends – a noodle connoisseur, an interior decorator, etc – to make her noodle shop the best dang noodle shop in Japan. This part of the film is very sweet and silly and wonderful. One of the drivers is sweet on the woman and they innocently flirt. The men spend much of their time trying to help her learn to cook the very best bath of noodles ever and that gets really fun.

Interspersed through all this is a series of vignettes about food and love often intersect. There is a husband who demands a woman rise from her deathbed to cook him one last meal, a lowly office worker who shows up his superiors with his vast knowledge of French cuisine, and an etiquette class that teaches its Japanese students how to properly eat spaghetti. The longest, strangest, and funniest is one involving a couple who use food in a variety of sexual ways. The vignettes are interesting and very silly, but I mostly enjoyed the film for its main story.

But the whole thing adds up to a big dish of delightful.

Foreign Film February: Scandal (1950)


Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite film directors of all time. I’ve not seen all of his films, in fact, I’ve only seen about half of them (17 of 32 if you are counting) but out of all I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a bad one. All of them have been good, and many have been truly great. Scandal is my least favorite of the films that I’ve seen. It isn’t a bad film by any means, but when compared to his masterpieces it just doesn’t hold up.

Toshiro Mifune plays Ichirō Aoye an artist who, as the film begins is out in the countryside painting some mountains. A woman, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), comes walking up the path carrying her luggage. She says she missed her bus and is staying at a nearby hotel. Ichirō says he is staying at the same hotel and he’ll give her a lift. They climb on his motorcycle and zoom away. Later that day, after they have both showered, he visits her in her room. They are both wearing robes and they hang their towels over her balcony rail. They have a friendly chat and at one point she draws close to him as he points out a nice walking trail she might take. It is at that moment a tabloid newspaper photographer snatches a picture.

The photo is sold to a tabloid rag which puts the photo on the front page and insinuates a secret romance between the two characters. Miyako is a famous singer and the story becomes quite a scandal. While Ichirō and Miyako discuss what to do they meet Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) a shambling, down-on-his-luck lawyer who says he’d like to represent them in a lawsuit against the magazine. Miyako declines but Ichirō is taken in by the man’s earnestness. When he meets Hiruta’s daughter, who is bedridden with TB but retains a cheerful attitude, he agrees to let Hiruta represent him.

Hirutu is a good man, but drowning in debt and is unable to afford good care for his daughter. When a lawyer for the magazine offers him a bribe to throw the case, he reluctantly agrees. The story unfolds in a way that aligns pretty directly with Kurosawa’s usual gentle humanism.

It is a decent story and it is told well. But compared to Kurosawa’s other works it falls short. There is nothing particularly surprising or interesting about how it unfolds, and the direction, while adequate, isn’t particularly special. I kept thinking about High and Low, Kurosawa’s fantastic crime drama from 1963. Much of that story takes place inside the house of the main character. It centers on one room. Kurusawa’s placement of the camera in that film, and the way it moves make that room feel claustrophobic or expansive depending on the mood he’s trying to create. It is a masterclass in direction. I kept hoping for something similar in Scandal, especially in the courtroom scenes, but the setups are all basic. The sort of placement you’d find in any courtroom drama airing on broadcast television. Again, it isn’t bad, it just doesn’t feel like a Kurosawa film.

In the end, it is still worth watching, especially if you are a fan, but this is definitely a lesser Kurosawa.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Vampire Doll (1970)

the vampire doll

I’ve talked about how the Criterion Channel is one of my favorite streaming services. Mubi is fast becoming a contender in that category. Mubi actually works as a kind of sister channel to Criterion. Where Criterion focuses on the world’s greatest films and lots of classic Hollywood films (and lots of other more esoteric themes like Snow Westerns and 1970s sci-fi) Mubi’s focus is on more modern art-house fair. They show films that premiere at film festivals like Cannes and Sundance, but that doesn’t necessarily reach a wider audience.

They also have a lot of what you might call cult films – genre movies that have been all but forgotten except by a small group of fans. The Vampire Doll is a good example of what I’m talking about. This was the Japanese film company Toho’s attempt at cashing in on the horror craze that so popular at the time.

It looks and feels like a Hammer Horror film with its creaky old mansion as a setting and its moody supernatural storyline. A man who has been traveling abroad for the last few months returns home to Japan. He immediately rides out to the country to see his girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi). Upon arrival, he is told by her mother (Yôko Minakaze) that Yuko is dead. She died in an automobile accident a few weeks prior.

That evening he sees a woman that appears to be Yuko. Flash forward a few days and the man’s sister, Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancee Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) visit the old mansion because they have not heard from her brother in a while and that is unusual. Keiko immediately senses something is wrong and decides to stick around and investigate.

With a 70-minute run time, the plot moves along pretty quickly. Honestly, storywise the film isn’t great. It doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. But it works really well as a mood piece. The mansion is full of creepy shadows, and the music is particularly moody. I mentioned Hammer Horror earlier and that is fitting. If you’ve ever seen any of those old movies then you’ll know what I’m talking about. They have a particular look and feel to them that is perfect for this type of gothic horror.

And that’s why I love sites like Mubi. I’d never heard of this film before, but they spotlighted it and now I’ve seen it and I’m glad that I did.

31 Days of Horror: Perfect Blue (1997)

perfect blue

It feels like such a treat to get an animated horror film. I’m a relatively big fan of animation and I realize that there are a lot of animated films being made that are not what you would call family-friendly. GKids has been putting out a lot of great stuff that deals with very mature themes and are meant for mature adults. Yet, in the USA animation seems primarily aimed and children. Even the great films Pixar have been putting out, many of which do deal with things like sadness and death, keep everything cheerful enough for the kiddos to watch.

So I say again, it feels like such a treat to get an animated horror film, even if this one did come out in 1997.

Perfect Blue is about Mima (voiced by Junko Iwao) a pop singer who is putting down her microphone in order to become a serious actress. In order to make that transition, she has to do things like pose nude in a magazine and perform in a brutal rape scene. All of which puts a bit of a crack in her psyche.

It doesn’t help that some crazed fan is stalking her, pretending to be her in online chat rooms, and murdering the people in her life.

The film blends reality and fiction in really interesting ways. There are lots of scenes that appear to be real only then to pull the curtain and make us realize it is a scene the actress is performing in or just a dream. I’m still not sure exactly what happened in it. But I rather loved watching every bit of it.