Juzo Itami’s Tampopo holds, and perhaps will always hold, the championship belt of Japanese craft movies. Not only does it draw on greater depths of knowledge about ramen than even the impressive amount of information on its surface would lead you to expect, it’s built around a core of ramen; take the ramen out, and you can’t replace it with, say, pies. While few Japanese films can touch Tampopo — in any regard, really — even the most heavy-handed, emotionally blockheaded releases in that country’s mainstream, and there are many, know better than to take craft lightly. Pâtisserie Coin de rue may lack nuance, if less catastrophically, but I can’t question its grip on the finer points of pastry-making.
The picture approaches this subject through its protagonist, a young not-quite-bumpkin — a smaller-city bumpkin, I guess — in futile search for the boyfriend who left for Tokyo to become a master pâtissier. Alighting on his last known pâtisserie of employment, she begs the owner and head chef to hire her, after which she sweeps the deck, endures the stink-eye from a slightly older co-worker, labors to break her simple pastry skills back down and build them up again, and, when disaster inevitably strikes, desperately lobbies a haunted legendary pâtissier to come out of his depressive retirement for one last big job to save the shop. Yes, really.
If Japanese audiences complain about being thought of as unsophisticated, need they look any further to find out why? If this movie didn’t know what it was doing with regard to the aforementioned craft and, to a lesser extent, with its aesthetics — for Japanese films also share a certain aesthetic strength right out of the gate — I’d have grown mightily pissed at all the violins, dead little kids, and ludicrous acting choices telling me what to feel. Yet I admit that I did hear a non-trivial amount of sniffling all around me at the screening. Am I so out of touch... ? No, no — it’s the other viewers who are wrong.
Watching Japanese movies and reading Japanese novels, I often wonder what it would be like to experience the kind of manic devotion to a craft Pâtisserie Coin de rue’s pâtissiers display. (Says the guy who spent last night intensively studying Dick Cavett and David Susskind in 1974.) I bet it delivers a real feeling of pride and security in one’s place in the world, but I doubt I could handle that degree of limitation. What if the apocalypse were to come, and there I stood amidst the wreckage, like an idiot, knowing everything there is to know about icing consistency — and mostly that? (Then again, I don’t know how much call a post-apocalyptic world will have for interviews, experimental film, and writing about the oddities of Japan.) I think of (past Marketplace of Ideas guest) Momus’ post on the “superlegitimacy” of Japanese train drivers:
The west prefers us to be divided, to wear masks, to adopt a casual, pragmatic, rather non-committal attitude to our jobs. Only selected professions (entrepreneur, artist, designer, sexual pervert) are really seen as vocational in a passionate way, the way that would make you say 'He's what he does right to his core, he lives it 24 hours a day'. A western train driver might make us feel indifference, scorn and pity, or make us hope he had a nice family and hobbies to compensate for the under-rewarded, uninteresting drudgery of his job. This Tokyu Line employee seemed to have the very soul of a train driver. He had made train driving his religion. He made me feel admiration and jealousy. I wanted his commitment, his dignity. I wanted to wear white gloves and make delicate ceremonial gestures even while doing something completely pragmatic and down-to-earth. I wanted to cry out with ecstasy every time I crossed points. As this driver, I would never feel unimportant. I would feel, in fact, like a star.
So while I enjoyed the film’s exploration of its professional themes, as far as it went, there clearly remains much territory to mine. I’d also love to see or read more about a phenomenon so central here that it goes not only unquestioned but effectively unacknowledged: Japanese Francophilia. Some of these characters were supposed to have studied in France, but damn, they still have the demeanor of a bunch of tourists boutsta get a bad case of Paris Syndrome laid on them.