Writer/director Yoshihiro Nishimura tones down his usual over-the-top violence and gore to deliver a fun, vibrant action-comedy musical with Tokyo Dragon Chef (Tôkyô doragon hanten; 2020). The absurdity and wackiness levels he brings are still high, though, and this may be the most energetic cinematic valentine to ramen since Tampopo (1985).
Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya) coaxes fresh-out-of-prison friend Tatsy (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) — both former yakuza members — to go straight by opening the Dragon Diner ramen restaurant together. With Ryu the brains behind the operation and Tatsy turning out to be a fine chef, their business booms quickly after a social media influencer gives it a positive review. Trouble comes calling when former members from a rival yakuza gang — gruff, quick-to-violence Jin (Hitoshi Ozawa) and chef Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) — open up their Ramen Ozawa truck directly across the street and are instantly popular when a wacky influencer with a huge appetite puts them on the map. Meanwhile, the eye-masked henchmen of a mysterious person known as Gizumo has been attacking and disbanding yakuza gangs, and the warring ramen owners must set aside their differences and band together with the kooky influencer, a fortune teller, and a loyal Dragon Diner high-school customer turned part-time employee (Rinne Yoshida) to face this violent threat. [Note: not all cast member and character names were available in English at press time.]
Nishimura, known for more outlandish fare such as Tokyo Gore Police (Tôkyô zankoku keisatsu; 2008) and Meatball Machine Kodoku (Mîtobôru mashin; 2017), has obviously helmed Tokyo Dragon Chef with the goal of it being a light-hearted feel-good movie with his unique stamp on the proceedings. He reigns in the violence and splatter, though viewers are still treated to comical but no less thrilling hand-to-hand combat and gunplay, with kitchen tools and other unusual weapons added to the mix.
The musical numbers, naturally including odes to ramen, are charmingly goofy, and though humor in any films is subjective, the nuttiness level with which many Japanese comedies are associated is here more on the pleasant and endearing side, with enough requisite outrageousness to make almost all viewers happy. The cast, consisting of seasoned genre-film veterans, singers, and screen newcomers is a solid one, with everyone turning in performances that stay grounded despite the unusual circumstances surrounding their characters.
Tokyo Dragon Chef is a colorful, sometimes manic, always delightful and engaging romp. Highly recommended for viewers looking to have a quirky good time — just make sure you have access to a bowl of authentic ramen, because this film will make you crave some of that wondrous goodness.
Tokyo Dragon Chef, from Terracotta Distribution, will be available in the U.K. on DVD and Digital Download from 25th January.