Tokyo Dragon Chef (Tokyo doragon hanten)
Japan (2020) Dir. Yoshihiro Nishimura
Reputation is everything in cinema. The news that a director has a new film out will either elicit squeals of joy at the potential masterpiece that awaits, or trepidation at what they have concocted from the depth of their aberrant minds. Japan’s king of low budget, esoteric, splatter madness Yoshihiro Nishimura falls into the latter category.
Aging Yakuza Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) is released from prison and picked up by his old friend Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya), who has an unusual proposition for Tatsu – they ditch the old criminal ways and set up a ramen restaurant. Opening the Dragon Diner, business is slow until YouTuber Kiyoto Naruse films himself enjoying their ramen, the subsequent online video attracting hordes of customers to the diner.
Shortly after, two rival Yakuza, Zin (Hitoshi Ozawa) and Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa), have the same idea and set up their van opposite the Diner and using YouTuber Mimi (Saiko Yatsuhashi) with her unlimited appetite to steal customers. Just as a ramen war is about to break out, Mimi is kidnapped by a young sociopath named Gizumo (Yutaro) who hates Yakuza, the rivals unite to rescue her.
Having created interest – or perhaps morbid curiosity – via 2008’s utterly bonkers and visual disturbing Tokyo Gore Police, Nishimura has been a cult figure for those with a taste for the extreme and offbeat. He’s a director that you know what you’re going to get from him yet never know how far he will push things to top his previous work – i.e. how far over the line of good taste he will cross.
It seems there was nothing to worry about regarding whether Tokyo Dragon Chef would be the stuff of nightmares; Nishimura delivers what is his most accessible film to date though mainstream appeal is still way off his radar. Shot over eight days, this paean to his favourite meal doesn’t just throw in a Yakuza war but also musical numbers too – complete with basic dance routines. Most films take weeks to film dance numbers!
Even though it is played straight(ish), this is a comedy at heart but with Nishimura’s trademark subversion of tropes and conventions. Yakuza going straight isn’t a new idea but rarely are they as benevolent as Ryu appears, making us wonder how he became a Yakuza in the first place. But as he explains, Gizumo, with his third eye, is dangerous, setting the Yakuza families against each other then beheading the bosses, making Ryu rethink his future.
Tatsu is slow to agree and they start small with a natto stall but after eating ramen for the first time in two years his memories a child return and he gets onboard with the restaurant idea as its chef. Whereas Tatsu’s blend of unique flavours and bold ideas wow the customers, Zin and Kazu go for huge portions as their selling point, although Kazu would rather make tasty ramen like Tatsu does.
With their secret weapon Mimi (“her nipples are pointy for no reason”, according to Zin) and her voracious appetite, interest in Zin and Kazu’s stall empties out the Dragon Diner and sees the two rival Yakuza prepare to go at once more. Thankfully, the cool head of schoolgirl ramen lover Kokoro (Rinne Yoshida) intervenes and encourages both sides to focus on their love of ramen, as she believes it save the world. If only…
Kokoro has a vested interest in this as her father was a ramen chef but was killed by Gizumo and has gang of eye ball masked hoodlums, as part of his ongoing campaign to rid the world of old people, especially Yakuza. Gizumo’s “third eye” is in fact the imprint of a gun nozzle on his forehead from a Yakuza he mouthed off to, which he then cut the sharp of an eye around it, to represent his unique vision for a better world.
Due to Tatsu and Ryu fighting off Gizumo’s thugs from beating up a Chinese restaurant owner (dressed in an old pigtail hat with the buckteeth sadly), Gizumo demands action and has Mimi kidnapped. Zin and Kazu call a truce to get Mimi back, using the skills of fortuneteller Rio (MICHI) to find her. Armed with a red crystal ball, knives, cleavers and condiments, the group set out to rescue Mimi.
You wouldn’t suspect a zany film like this designed to celebrate a national dish to have any kind of message to it other than “enjoy your food”, but it seems Gizumo’s juvenile megalomania also serves to send a warning to Japanese youth. Gizumo’s tenet that old people should move aside for the young is exposed as misplaced here, Nishimura’s retort being that big ideas and callow entitlement are no substitute for experience and worldly knowledge.
Fans of Nishimura’s extreme works might feel underwhelmed by this amiable, almost giddy little film but his bent for the unusual and stylistic quirks are still present, whilst the cheapo special effects are employed in a different way. The eyeball masks Gizumo’s thugs wear are quite eerie and sinister, but the real oddity is Mimi, her face painted up like a 1970s idea of an alien, along with pink hair and pointy ears. Just don’t call her an alien, she doesn’t like that…
Casting actors famed for their roles as Yakuza in the past was a masterstroke as they bring a level of authenticity to what are essentially caricatures of the archetype, without seeming like a spoof. MICHI in her first film role is enigmatically camp as Rio, rapper Rinne Yoshida provides the generation gap gusto as Kokoro, whilst pretty boy Yutaro is an unlikely villain by his own admission. Look out for a Tak Sakaguchi cameo too!
Tokyo Dragon Chef achieves two things – one, it reveals there is a thoughtful human being behind the maverick persona of Nishimura, and two – it will make you hunger for ramen, even if you have never had it before.
In conclusion – food porn > torture porn!