Made in 1985, but not released in the US until 1987, Tampopo was perhaps the first real foodie movie. Before Babette’s Feast (1987), before Like Water for Chocolate (1992), before Big Night (1996), and long, long before Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and Chef (2014) there was Tampopo, a sexy comic western about ramen noodles which became an arthouse smash. Nearly thirty years later Janus Films is reviving Tampopo in a 4K restoration that opens today at New York’s Film Forum. The new poster for the film, in which various characters bob in a sea of noodles, is by a wonderful young Brooklyn-based illustrator Ping Zhu whose work may be familiar from the New Yorker and New York Times.
The original Japanese poster was also illustrated and by none other than director Juzo Itami himself. Before he was an actor and director (he had been acting since 1960 but directed his first film, The Funeral, in 1984 at the age of 50), Itami had been an artist and graphic designer. There is a museum devoted to Itami in Matsuyama, where he grew up, which features his drawings and posters. I love the graphic novel style of his Tampopo poster (which also, quite unusually, features an inset photo of the director).
When I worked at New Yorker Films in 1990—my first job in New York—Tampopo was one of the company’s biggest recent hits and I remember the one sheet framed on the wall of the office. The now iconic poster was designed by Arnie Sawyer who told me a little bit about creating it in the days before Photoshop.
I was given stills and made xeroxes on a “state of the art” copier that actually reduced and enlarged! I built the collage of the characters sitting in the ramen bowl, balancing them to look natural with each other while forming a nice shape to flow into the title etc. and used a Japanese ramen catalog (one of my wife’s food magazines) to find the PERFECT noodles, fishcake and scallions, as well as a typically designed ramen bowl. For Chinese and Japanese films I always insist on utilizing the original foreign title in their characters, both for authenticity and for their graphic beauty. So on Tampopo, the lovers were tallest and the kanji was placed above them, completing the vertical movement top to bottom...with the English title bisecting the vertical. Then I added the steam rising and curving to best accentuated the elements, bringing them together as a whole. Then I added colors to my B/W xerox comp, had the original photos/stills printed on C print paper in sepia and gave that to an excellent hand colorist, Maryanne Shea, to complete the poster. Today I would have done it all in Photoshop and could play with endless variations of colors too. I still like it.
I like it a lot too, and one of my favorite things about it, beyond everything Arnie mentioned, is the title in black Helvetica—an unusual and restrained choice in the script-title crazy ’80s.
Sawyer’s poster was adapted for the quad poster in the UK, which was where I first saw the film at the London Film Festival.
The Italian poster has a more graphically sexy version of Sawyer’s noodle bowl.
And then there’s the German poster which abandons the film’s playful, comic elements for something far starker and more torrid (though the chopsticks picking up the O of the title is a whimsical touch). The tagline reads “Food and Sex are basically the same.”
Many thanks to Arnie Sawyer and Keiko Kimura for their help. Tampopo starts at Film Forum today with Nobuko Miyamoto—Itami’s widow and Tampopo herself—in person this evening.