Most cinephiles will know Yoshihiro Nishimura from his legendary make-up effects in Sion Sono’s Suicide Circle (2001), Yūdai Yamaguchi’s Meatball Machine (2005) and Noboru Iguchi’s The Machine Girl (2008) as well as his directorial work in the grotesque horror and splatter genre (e.g. Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Mutant Girls Squad (2010), and Meatball Machine Kodoku (2017)). Tokyo Dragon Chef is different. Rather than being a splatter or horror, one could be tempted to categorize Nishimura’s latest as a noodle western.
One day, Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi), a yakuza, is released from prison. Much to his surprise, his friend Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya) is not driving their Mercedes – Ryu sold it, but a small food truck. At the local bathhouse, Ryu tells him about the mysterious man with a third eye named Gizumo (Yutaro) who decimated all the yakuza families. While Tatsu immediately expresses his desire to murder Gizumo, Ryu urges him to leave behind the yakuza way of life and invites him, who is so skilled at cooking, to start a Ramen restaurant with him.
Gizumo, on the other hand, is planning to keep on killing yakuza as well as conquering/unifying Japan with his hotel-emporium. And then, one day, he designates the area where Ryu and Tatsu as well as their competition, Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) and Zin (Hitoshi Ozawa), the Ozawa brothers, have opened their restaurant as the next area of expansion. A deathly conflict ensues.
Nishimura’s Tokyo Dragon Chef is a narrative that touches, in a fleeting way, upon many themes without really developing any of these themes in a deeper way. While such superficiality would have been a problem for many narratives, it does not hurt Tokyo Dragon Chef. It does not hurt Nishimura’s narrative because these thematic elements are only utilized to support the visual pleasure and to visually please the spectator. One could even argue that the fragmentary exploration of certain themes is a byproduct of Nishimura’s true intention: to entertain the spectator visually and narratively.
While thematic elements such as generational conflict, imaginary injury, and greed are function of the structure of the narrative – these elements are present to give the story its consistency and the villain his reason, other thematic elements are only indirectly brought to the fore via the visual composition. Beyond placing the spectator in a passive voyeuristic position and enticing him with the eroticism of the female curves and the erotic beauty of eating, Nishimura’s composition also visually celebrates the art of cooking and the joy of eating.
By visually celebrating the pleasure of making and eating food – and ramen in particular – Nishimura succeeds in touching upon the inherent relational nature of enjoying food as well as the importance of the oral drive for the subject. Both are highlighted in the scene where Tatsu decides to start a business with Ryu. In this scene, Tatsu is only able to accept Ryu’s invitation to start a ramen business after the ramen delivery girl feeds him noodles, a situation that is, as is revealed, an accidental re-enactment of an oedipal scene with his mother.
One thematic aspect is developed somewhat deeper in Tokyo Dragon Chef: the social phenomenon of Youtubers/influencers. The battle between the two ramen restaurants is instigated by the very influence youtuber Naruse (-) and big-eating Mimi (-) have. Via this conflict, Nishimura is not only able to touch upon the power of youtubers to influence others, but also show that this power is driven by the dynamic of imaginary identification as well as by a need for drive-related pleasure – be it a scopic pleasure (i.e. by watching sexy youtuber Mimi eat or serve food) or an oral pleasure (i.e. by eating, just like Naruse and Mimi, the featured ramen).
The cinematographical composition of Tokyo Dragon Chef stands out due to the pleasingly paced rhythm. It is this compositional rhythm, this visual flow, that entices the spectator and ensures that he/she can extract some basic enjoyment from the film. The decorative elements (slow-motion, decorative backgrounds, short CGI-animation moments, … etc.) as well as the musical/dancing sequences further heighten the visual pleasure by inserting some visual and narrative lightheartedness into the compositional mix – a lightheartedness furthermore accentuated by the rich and diverse musical accompaniment. The ultimate visual pleasure is, in our view, delivered by the finale of Tokyo Dragon Chef. This finale does not only boast some truly fun and satisfying fighting sequences but is also the veritable highlight of the narrative.
While the acting in Tokyo Dragon Chef is decent to great overall, there is nevertheless some amateurish acting present in the beginning of the narrative. Luckily, instead of derailing the enjoyment the spectator can have with Nishimura’s Tokyo Dragon Chef, these somewhat wonky acting moments add to the overall charm of the film.
While Nishimura’s Tokyo Dragon Chef does not have the thematic depth of the classic noodle Western Tampopo (1985), Nishimura does succeed in delivering a visually pleasing and crazy love-letter to the culinary art of ramen. We can recommend Tokyo Dragon Chef to anyone who is looking for a wild ride of mindless fun – catchy musical sequences and deadly martial-arts sequences are included.