Yoshihiro Nishimura began his career designing makeup and special effects for other directors working in the genre he would later headline, low budget splatter/exploitation primarily produced for the export market. With such legendary titles as Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, and Helldriver under his belt Nishimura’s reputation for surreal violence is already assured, but Tokyo Dragon Chef (Tokyoドラゴン飯店, Tokyo Dragon Hanten) sees him heading in a different, perhaps unexpected direction with a “family friendly” (depending on your family) musical tale of changing times, intergenerational warfare, and the wholesome soul of ramen.
Veteran yakuza Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) has just come out of prison but emerges into a world very different than he left it. His old comrade Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya) now peddles Nata de Coco out of a tiny van, explaining that a mysterious invader with a third eye, Gizumo (Yutaro), apparently beheaded not only their gang boss but several others in the area effectively killing off the local yakuza scene. Remembering that Tatsu had a reputation as top a cook, a skill he apparently honed inside, Ryu suggests permanently retiring from the life to open a ramen bar. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza, Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) and Jin (Hitoshi Ozawa), have had exactly the same idea, setting up a van virtually outside and positioning themselves the competition by serving truly ginormous portions literally pushing quantity over quality.
The truth is that the yakuza as an organisation has entered its twilight period, these older, Showa-style gangsters no longer have much of a place in the modern world hence why they need to find alternative ways of living. This is a fact brought home to them by the main villain who has a bizarre habit of singing Merry Christmas and is something like a youth elitist who resents the privileged status of the middle-aged and older in Japan’s ageing society, insisting that “Japan can’t survive with only old people like you” and that they should step aside to allow the young to rule. His villainy is well and truly signalled by his allegiance to fancy steak dinners which he characterises as high class cuisine suitable for righteous citizens like himself, rejecting the earthy, wholesome charms of the iconic shomin soul food that is ramen.
The former yakuza, meanwhile, forced to work together, are an unexpected source of egalitarian solidarity. Not only do they eventually add an Okinawan soothsayer (Michi), holding a bright red crystal ball and dressed in traditional Ryukyu fashion while singing in a typical island style, to their ranks but their chief supporter closes all his YouTube videos with “kamsamnida”. Old style gangsters, they intensely resent that Gizumo has taken the battle to the streets in targeting those outside the life such as the Chinese owner of another local ramen bar and the father of their biggest fan, ramen-obsessed high school girl Kokoro (Rinne Yoshida). Yet there is something a little subversive in the irony of these multicultural nods, Kazu and Jin’s rival mascot character Mimi (Saiko Yatsuhashi), a YouTube star famous for eating giant portions who intensely resents being called an “alien”, breaking into cod Korean while the Chinese ramen guy is dressed in the full “Chinaman” outfit complete with fake pigtail.
Nevertheless, it’s the wholesome charms of authentic ramen which eventually bring people together as the gang prepare to face off against Gizumo who apparently wants to turn the land into some kind of soulless hotel state. The final fight in which the former goons arm themselves only with ramen utensils and noren poles is also not without its share of irony as they turn Gizumo’s weird iconography back against him in despatching his henchmen who are each wearing helmets in the shape of an eyeball which would it seems be something of a handicap in hand-to hand combat even if your opponents were not fearsome gangsters, determined high school girls with vengeance on their minds, “alien” mascots, and spiritualists armed with hazardous balls. A fantastically silly affair, Tokyo Dragon Chef isn’t taking itself too seriously but has wholesome charms of its own in a tale of reformed yakuza, rebirthed communities, and the healing power of ramen as a universal unifier pushing back against snooty, youthful elitism in an ageing society.
UK Release trailer (English subtitles)