Back in 2008, Japanese filmmaker Yoshihiro Nishimura made a name for himself in the Extreme Cinema scene with the fervently adored Tokyo Gore Police, a science fiction splatter epic starring none other than Eihi Shiina of Audition fame as a sword-wielding heroine. While this wasn’t Nishimura’s directorial debut, (you can read our review for one of his earliest films here ), it introduced his work to a wider demographic overseas and spawned an ardent cult following. Those of us who continued supporting his creative endeavors were treated to an array of incredibly inventive character and creature designs, jaw-dropping and uncomfortably long gory set pieces, and high caliber practical effects that would soon have audiences dubbing him the Tom Savini of Japan. In fact, whenever Nishimura was not behind the camera, he was busy crafting special effects for other filmmakers and has been credited for his contributions to Suicide Club, Meatball Machine, the live-action Attack on Titan films, and 2016’s Shin Godzilla.
With so many distinct pieces of work under his belt, fans such as myself are always wondering what he will release next. It’s exciting to see his work in big-budget blockbusters such as the latter two mentioned above, but I feel that most creative minds are at their best when they are in full control of their art. This is why I was particularly excited when I heard that Tokyo Dragon Chef, Nishimura’s most recent work after Meatball Machine: Kodoku and Welcome To Japan: Hinomaru Lunch Box, would be screening at this year’s Japan Film Fest Hamburg (JFFH) as part of their online festival that even you can be a part of! (Click on the hyperlink provided for more information on how you can attend from the comfort of your own home!) Color me surprised when I realized that Tokyo Dragon Chef was not a morbid blood soaked splatter fest but instead a kooky musical comedy and love letter to one of the most beloved dishes in existence..
Our story begins when ex-yakuza Tatsu is released from prison and reunites with his ex-yakuza pal Ryu, who has been humbly running a food truck of sorts selling Nata de Coco and tapioca without a real sense of accomplishment. During a visceral conversation between the two, it is mutually agreed that they don’t want to go back to living the yakuza lifestyle and should instead focus their efforts in opening up a successful ramen shop. After collecting a large sum of family money from a priest, the duo succeed in finding a location for their shop and are soon open to the public. Business is slow at first, but after receiving a visit from a self-proclaimed Youtuber who records himself eating their Dragon Ramen Combo, the number of customers drastically increases and sales begin to go through the roof. It’s almost too good to be true, but if you’ve seen any yakuza film over the last few years, you know that the past always finds a way to creep itself back into the present!
As fate would have it, two opposing ex-yakuza buddies Ozawa Jin and Kazu are also eager to put their past crimes behind them and thrive in the noodle soup making business. By movie magic coincidence, the two open up a shop right across from Tatsu and Ryo and are instantly eager to beat the other team at their game. Jin enlists the help of eating idol and Youtuber Mimi, an eccentrically dressed and possibly non-anthropoid being with pointy ears, in order to gain business traction and rival the success of their competition. You see, Mimi, similar to real-life mukbangers, is able to consume large amounts of food, but to a much more exaggerated extent. This draws the attention of numerous onlookers, including most of Tatsu and Ryu’s clients. To make matters worse, a third party force named Gizumo, who happens to have a grudge against yakuza, is on a mission to take down every yakuza family that he can track down with the help of his eyeball-mask-wearing goons. It’s difficult to be incognito when your newly opened ramen shop has become such a viral hit!
Although almost entirely devoid of the grotesque imagery that has become synonymous with Nishimura’s name, Tokyo Dragon Chef still exudes his personal style visually and audibly. The endearingly distinct character costumes that fans have become inured to are provided here in abundance along with the colorful digital backdrops that highlight significant moments in a scene. The upbeat funk-inspired pop soundtrack instantly reminded me of Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, which Nishimura co-directed with Naoyuki Tomomatsu, and upon further research discovered that score composer Ko Nakagawa actually worked on both films! There is no such thing as a coincidence. Needless to say, if you enjoyed the tunes in the aforementioned film, you will definitely be grooving to the tracks presented here! One song in particular was stuck in my head the remainder of the day, but I’ll let you ponder on that until you’ve seen the film yourself.
The musical numbers themselves are not always meticulously choreographed, but when they are it’s an absolute joy to behold. A good amount of the film’s humor bleeds into these sequences, but I was surprised at how funny some of the non-musical scenes were as well. The satirical TV commercials featured in Tokyo Gore Police were included after a colleague suggested adding humor to balance out the rest of the film’s dark tone; the humor in these segments was still quite dark itself, so I definitely underestimated Nishimura’s range in this particular field. I guess I must have taken that bit of information too seriously and let it cloud my expectations! By far the most enjoyable character to spend time with was Mimi, the adorable pink-wearing binge-eating pixie who has an averse reaction whenever someone questions her humanity. Think Tomie whenever someone calls her a monster, except cuter. The four male leads are equally as endearing, albeit for different reasons. It was pointed out to me that these four actors actually played yakuza characters in their prime, which adds a bit of meta spice to the mix! Throw in a ramen-obsessed school girl who sings her heart out and a psychic medium who carries around a red crystal ball and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an unforgettable crew!
I have to admit, I did feel that the film began to lose its stride towards the end of the second act, and I can imagine that certain viewers might have grown tired of the fatuous musical numbers by then. Thankfully, the film shifts back into gear once the third act begins and manages to hold its momentum until the very end. In fact, the momentum continues even after the credits begin to roll with a delightfully absurd mid-credit scene that teases even more adventures with our eclectic ramen squad. Who knows if a proper follow-up will actually come to fruition; I’m still waiting for the Tokyo Gore Police sequel that was teased. The only element that felt under-cooked was the character Gizumo. We are treated to a visually stunning flashback that attempts to explain his disdain for the yakuza, but I felt as though there was so much more to be explored. It’s easy to dislike him for all the right reasons; he makes constant references to his “third eye” and how it makes him superior to everyone else, so at the very least, making him as unsympathetic as possible was probably a smart move and made the finale that much more rewarding.
If you’re already a fan of Nishimura’s work, you have every reason to watch Tokyo Dragon Chef. This is also the perfect film to watch if you’re in need of a little pick me up or if you’re looking for something frivolous to watch with a group of friends. At its core, TDC is a film about the joy that stems from the things that we’re passionate about, but it is executed in a way that perhaps only Nishimura-san can pull off. There is one thing I STRONGLY advise you do before watching the film: make sure your favorite local ramen shop is still open by the time the movie is over, or stock up on instant ramen at home because you WILL be craving a bowl of delicious Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a warm meat based broth afterwards. You’re getting hungry already aren’t you? As mentioned above, this flick will be one of the many to stream online as part of this year’s JFFH. The festival will run from August 18th to September 1st, so you have plenty of time to check out their lineup and purchase tickets!