In Scenic Routes, Mike D'Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Nowadays, just about all theater chains present, as part of their endless pre-feature rigmaroles, public-service announcements asking viewers to turn off their stupid phones already. Some outlets went so far as to create realistic-looking trailers for animated comedies or Hong Kong action flicks, which unexpectedly get interrupted after 20 or 30 seconds by (ostensibly) the ringtone of somebody sitting in the theater. The basic hey-asshole-SHHH! idea has been around for decades—back in the day, it was about not talking rather than not texting—but the effort to disguise this list of rules as entertainment seems fairly modern, or rather postmodern. The most extreme example is surely the short film that precedes Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, in which a band of mutant concession items (played by Mastodon) threaten to “bite your torso and give you a disease,” among other indignities, if you fail to maintain absolute silence and stillness.
Everything old is new again, however, and there’s actually a precedent for that idea dating back more than a quarter-century. For a stretch in the mid-to-late-’80s, Jûzô Itami was the most celebrated Japanese director in American arthouses, apart from the legendary Akira Kurosawa. It’s hard to remember now, because Itami died (in somewhat mysterious circumstances) back in 1997, and his films are rarely talked about or revived. But Tampopo, a self-described “noodle Western,” was his breakthrough picture—such a sizable hit that U.S. distributors rushed Itami’s previous effort, The Funeral, into theaters, and later even found a home for his cash-grab sequel to A Taxing Woman, A Taxing Woman’s Return. And part of what attracted viewers was the goofy audacity of Tampopo’s opening scene, which is a hey-asshole-SHHH! announcement that’s actually built into the structure of the movie itself. Take a look.
Now, though I’ve owned Tampopo on DVD for ages (and just learned that my DVD is out of print and commanding big bucks on eBay), it’s just been sitting on the shelf that whole time. I hadn’t actually watched the film in many years. So my first reaction was surprise and delight, because I had no idea that the unnamed gangster in the white suit is played by the great Kôji Yakusho. This was among his first few movies, it turns out; it was a full decade before he reappeared on U.S. screens as the lead in Shall We Dance? (later remade with Richard Gere in Yakusho’s role, which suggests a sense of Yakusho’s range). And he was magnificent from the get-go. Every physical movement here is as precisely tailored as his wardrobe, from the way he places his hat atop his girlfriend’s head (backward) to the jaunty smile that reappears on his face a split second after he shakes Crinkly Wrapper Man violently by the lapels. His gangster is a minor character in the story that follows, but his debonair self-confidence sets the tone.
It’s significant, however, that the gangster is a character in the story that follows. Tampopo has an unusual structure: The primary narrative, about a shit-kickin’ truck driver and his buddy who help a widow revamp her noodle shop, is repeatedly interrupted by unconnected, food-related vignettes. Some of these involve Yakusho’s gangster and his girlfriend. Others don’t. And this isn’t an Alfie- or Ferris Bueller-style comedy in which one or more characters regularly address the audience directly. The device is introduced here, right at the outset, then completely ignored. There’s even a later scene in which Yakusho looks directly into the camera but isn’t looking at us—it’s made clear that he’s speaking to a girl onscreen. In other words, Tampopo conforms to none of the expectations this scene creates. Itami breaks the fourth wall to establish immediately that he isn’t telling a conventional story, and then opts to ignore even the conventions of that unconventionality. It’s an audacious move, beautifully executed.
A particular aspect I love is Yakusho’s sudden discovery of our existence. (I’m not sure how else to phrase it, for reasons I’ll get to below.) Usually, when a character breaks the fourth wall, it’s implied that he—it’s almost always a man, isn’t it?—understands on some level that he’s in a movie. He talks to us about his predicament, tells us to go home after the closing credits, etc. There’s no moment of dawning realization; it’s encoded in the character’s DNA. Occasionally, broader comedies feature a gag in which the people onscreen suddenly become aware of the camera and react with surprise and alarm. (This dates back at least as far as the Monty Python sketch in which the gang is panicked to discover that their interior set, shot on video, is surrounded by film.) But Yakusho is neither aware of our existence when he enters the theater nor perplexed when he catches sight of us. And while he unmistakably approaches the camera, bending down to greet it and growing larger as he does so (never saw Ferris do that), he also recognizes that we’re at a movie, and asks us about our snacks. Does he understand that he’s a character in our movie? It’s unclear—after all, it’s not as if we’re all characters in his movie, which hasn’t started yet. None of it really makes much sense, which just makes the conceit all the funnier.
And then there’s the sheer hypocrisy of Yakusho complaining about people who crinkle wrappers or set off watch alarms (yep, it’s the ’80s) while sitting behind a table full of gourmet food set up by his three lackeys. Never having been to Japan, I have no idea whether Itami is poking fun at specific behavior… though here in America, I personally watched someone berate a fellow patron for not instantly shutting off his iPhone when the feature began, then spend much of the movie talking to a friend at living-room volume. (For the greatest won’t-shut-up story of all time, read this blog post by my friend, film critic Bilge Ebiri.) But multiplex rudeness evidently knows no national boundaries, and while things may have gotten worse—witness Bobcat Goldthwait’s recent God Bless America, in which he depicts noisy moviegoers being gunned down by the film’s deranged protagonist—they were already annoying enough 28 years ago that Itami chose this idea from the numerous possibilities involving cinema and food. Tasked with getting our attention and making an impression, he chose to convey this message: NO DISTRACTIONS. It’s one for the ages, really.