In 2015, critics and audiences united over one film: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The long-awaited sequel/reboot received heaps of praise, earned a slew of critics awards, and ended up walking away with six Oscars, along with nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. It’s rare to see that sort of unanimous recognition  for a major studio’s summer action blockbuster, but Miller’s post-apocalyptic desert epic was an oasis within the barren landscape of studio tentpoles. Fury Road veered away from the noxious familiarities of story and character that come attached with a nine-figure price tag, and it avoided the house style we’ve come to expect from the large, lumbering talent vacuum built by Disney and Marvel. It offered a singular, uncompromising [or, for a film of this magnitude, a less compromised] vision on a massive scale, one designed by an artist rather than a room full of suits or a focus group.

But if Fury Road provided 2015 with a breath of fresh air for multiplex fare, 2016 was the equivalent of getting dunked right back into the shit. Films like Warcraft, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, and The Legend of Tarzan looked like pure product and, based on their reception, probably turned out to be pure crap. Things got so bad that The Boston Globe’s film critic Ty Burr wondered if 2016 would be remembered “as the year the movies died.” Aside from reigniting the old, asinine question of whether or not cinema is dead, Burr’s piece pointed out that the dire state of studio films is the result of shifting audience demands phasing out their quality and purpose, a line of thinking that provided a hard truth about Fury Road’s success. Miller’s film wasn’t a revival or rebirth of the quality tentpole, nor was it a hopeful sign of things to come; it was a celebration of one last flicker from the past, a glimpse at an endangered species as it’s about to go extinct.

It’s a pessimistic view that’s not exactly true [great films are still being made, it’s more that one specific type of system isn’t making as many of them anymore], but if we’re going to have an optimistic stance towards the future of cinema then change is inevitable, and figuring out what that change might be leads me to Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. The 1985 film received a new restoration and re-release in the second half of 2016, and it was the most entertaining thing I saw in a theater that whole year. It’s a film about food, more specifically good food, and Itami makes his film like a great dish: something to be savoured, devoured, and asking for more. 

It’s that kind of immediate hit to the pleasure centre of the brain that blockbusters need, and to understand how Tampopo pulls it off we don’t need to look much further than its opening sequences. Starting off in a movie theater, a man [Koji Yakusho] wearing a white suit strolls in with his date and three other men, and as the couple sit down the men set up a table with gourmet food and champagne in front of them. But before the absurdity of the situation can sink in, the man becomes aware of the camera, getting out of his seat and walking straight over so he can stare the audience down. “You’re at the movies too, huh?” he asks, before talking about his hatred of noisy eaters and excitement to watch his life flash before his eyes once he dies. Then the lights dim in his theater, he takes his seat, and Tampopo finally begins [or so we think].

Credits play over black and white footage of a truck driving in rainy weather before cutting to the story of a man trying to learn the art of eating noodles from a man who’s “studied ramen for 40 years.” It’s a fun sequence taking aim at people who overthink eating food, but within a few minutes it’s never seen again; the film cuts back to the truck [this time in colour] to reveal the passenger [Ken Watanabe] has been reading a book out loud to the driver [Tsutomu Yamazaki], who has to pull over at the nearest noodle shop due to the book making him hungry. This is where Tampopo technically begins, but by this point it’s impossible to guess where it will end up.

Within one minute, Itami breaks the fourth wall. Within five, he redefines his own film twice, revealing we’re watching what might be a novel within a film within another film. Compare this to almost any wide release from the past twelve months and it’s likely that the opening minutes will amount to laying down groundwork: establishing a McGuffin, opening with a flash forward, highlighting a dominant theme or character trait that’s supposed to resonate by the end. With films leaning so hard on the structures and patterns of older, better films, it’s easy to become aware of elements in a more schematic fashion; if a mentor type character appears on screen, it’s only a matter of time before they die off to raise the stakes before the final act. It causes viewers to look at movies as a series of gears turning within the same machine, and in turn creates the distanced, disaffected feeling commonly associated with studio products. Tampopo doesn’t bother laying down much groundwork, and by doing so it allows the freedom to do whatever it wants, audience sensibilities be damned.

So when Itami periodically wanders off from his main storyline, observing several characters around town who have their own food-related issues, it’s not hard to embrace the digressions because of what rewards they might lead to. Tampopo is a film made by someone for the people rather than the other way around, and it’s the feeling of not being catered to that’s part of why the film hasn’t lost its charm or power. If film’s power comes from its subjectivity, then why not make people acclimate to different perspectives, or different definitions of entertainment? What we’re seeing more of today are films doing away with the risk of pushing audiences out of their comfort zones so they can keep investors within their own, and that way of operating has led to the sort of malaise that makes people question the vitality of cinema. I don’t really know or care if cinema is alive or dead. What I know is that Tampopo is a great film, and we’d be better off if more films took inspiration from it.