A gangster in a stark white suit and his mistress stride down the aisle of a movie theater, taking their seats right in the front row. A gaggle of thugs follow after them, placing a table in front of them and quickly covering it with a luxurious basket of foods, two champagne flutes, and a bottle of champagne. The champagne is poured into a flute, and as the gangster lifts it to his lips he looks straight into the camera, addressing us, the audience - “Oh? So you're at a movie too. What are you eating?”
Juzo Itami's 1985 film, Tampopo, is a joyful visual feast celebrating the Japanese's love of - and obsession with - food. The film is a series of vignettes surrounding the main story of Tampopo, the owner of a struggling ramen shop, and Goro, a truck driver who accidentally becomes her mentor in the art of preparing and serving ramen.
And what an art it is – an early scene shows Goro's companion Gun (played by a young Ken Watanabe) receiving a lesson from a ramen guru on the proper technique to eating a bowl of ramen. The food itself is lovingly photographed – closeup shots put the bowl in the center of the frame, then pan in to fully revel in the aesthetic composition of the soup. The ramen master gently lifts the slices of pork on the top and tucks them under the noodles – explaining that this is a token of respect for the contribution of the pork. Ramen in Japan is like the cheeseburger in the US – greasy, salty, cheap and satisfying – but in Tampopo it is treated with the respect usually reserved for high cuisine. While the experience of having fresh ramen may be foreign to most American viewers, the act of eating and savoring food is universal. Tampopo takes eating a bowl of ramen and elevates it to a ritual – celebrating the pieces that make up the whole. When done perfectly, even lowly street food like ramen can become high art.
Many of the film's gags rely heavily on Japanese culture and social traditions, yet the film also incorporates elements from traditional Hollywood genres. Amongst the vignettes in the film are parodies of cultural stereotypes - a young business executive upstages his superiors at a restaurant with his extensive knowledge of French cuisine. A mother on her deathbed rises to make dinner for her family, her last act before death. A group of young women are taught how to eat noodles abroad properly, without slurping or making any noise – except once they see a foreigner in the same restaurant noisily slurping down his noodles, they follow suit. While the jokes in these scenes are heavily Japanese, they become universally accessible in their complete reversal of expectations.
As much as the film celebrates the rituals of food, it is also a celebration of Hollywood genres and film itself. The formation of a genre is a sort of ritual in itself, a meaningful repetition of familiar characters and tropes. Tampopo pays homage to traditional genres – especially the western and the gangster film. Goro the truck driver rolls into Tampopo's restaurant like Shane, there to clean up the town, conquer the bad guys, then move on. The final ramen tasting scene is filmed like a shootout, with the five taste-testers approaching the ramen store with steely resolve, ready for one last test.
The gangster figure in the film is the complete embodiment of obsession and lust, for food, cinema, and life. The opening scene immediately combines food and cinema, and the gangster's lust for both – he demands both the most optimal dining and viewing experience, threatening a man behind him for crinkling his potato chip bag too loudly. He requires silence for his movie viewing, and explains how right before death, one is said to see their life before their eyes, like a movie – and he wants no interruptions when he sees his own. Later, the gangster is featured in a version of the typical romantic sex scene – yet the addition of food and its creative uses make the scene hilariously unsexy. Finally, near the end of the film the gangster is stumbling in the gutter, shot and bleeding to death. As his lover cries over him, all he can talk about is – what else – food. Right before he passes, he hushes her, “Be quiet. My last movie is starting.” Food is life, and life is a movie.
For the characters in Mitsuo Yanagimachi's film, Who's Camus Anyway? (2005), the boundaries between cinema and real life become blurred as they endeavor to create a film. Who's Camus centers around a group of film students in Tokyo who are about to shoot a film, and their personal and creative trials as obstacles get in the way.
Who's Camus starts off playfully self-reflexive – as a film about film, there are several layers of interpretation and meaning involved. The opening sequence is a smoothly choreographed long take, with a fluid camera that floats around the college campus, introducing the viewer to the different characters of the film. Two of the filmophile students, naturally, are discussing legendary long opening takes of films, name dropping films like Orson Welles's Touch of Evil and Robert Altman's The Player.
These are the first of many references to films, novels, and philosophers – at times the film feels like it is only accessible to viewers who know the material referenced. However, when one of the producers of the student film, Kamimura, enters a cafe and immediately begins re-enacting a scene from Jean-Luc Godard'sMasculin Féminin, it becomes clear that the name dropping is not just for show. Kamimura remembers and recounts the scene in precise detail, remembering each camera movement, the placement of the extras in the scene, the motions of the film's star. The extras in the film we are watching become the extras in the film in his mind. The lines between reality and cinema are blurred and crossed over for Kamimura, the walking encyclopedia of film.
Who's Camus Anyway? follows the personal drama and conflicts of the student film crew as they struggle to put together their film, called The Bored Murderer, and themselves. The film within the film is about a high school student, Takeda, that invades the home of and then murders an elderly woman, for no apparent reason. As the director and his crew ponder why he would commit this act, they begin to dissect the motivations behind their own – often immoral – behavior. When Hisada, the assistant director of the student film, explains to her boyfriend why she kissed two other men while he was away, she uses similar language to Takeda, the murderer in her own film. To explain their actions both of them make no excuses – they wanted to see what it felt like after they had crossed those boundaries.
The film's most impressive cinematic feat is its last fifteen minutes, which is the actual filming of The Bored Murderer. Here the line between the film, its producers, and its audience is completely erased. The sequence starts out straight forward enough – it is clear when the audience is watching the filming of Takeda's story and when the audience is seeing what the movie looks like – as though it has already been processed and edited together. The viewer changes between the two visual worlds, that of the filming and that of the film. Then things start to get weird. In the film within the film we watch as Takeda washes up after killing the elderly woman. Her husband comes home and starts knocking on the outside of the house, and Takeda begins to panic. The film cuts outside to see the husband knocking on the window – and then Hisada calls cut from off camera, enters the shot, and tells the actor playing the husband that the take was good. Then, within the same shot, the plot of The Bored Murderer continues – Takeda leaps out of the window with a knife, tackling the husband. It is clearly not the actor who plays Takeda committing some prank on set. As the scene continues on, we are back within The Bored Murderer. The next shot is a wide shot – where previously all the crew and equipment had been set up around the house, everything is now gone, consistent with the interior film. The transition between the reality and the fiction within Who's Camus is seamless – the worlds have been united in one shot. The cinematic borders between what happens in front of the camera and what happens behind have been blurred and erased. The filmmakers become part of their own film, and the film is part of them.