Tokyo Dragon Chef is a very hard film to describe. The latest from Yoshihiro Nishimura seems to go for two very distinct tones – a crime caper a la Scorsese, and a manic comedy that never seems to find its feet.
The film follows two former gangsters, the calm and level-headed Ryu and the madcap ex-con Tatsu, as their post-prison rehabilitation leads to them opening a ramen restaurant in Tokyo. Yet it’s not that simple: a set of equally brazen gangsters end up opening a rival restaurant on their turf, leading to both group using YouTubers – yes, YouTubers – to overtake one another in popularity and sales. But when one of these influencers is kidnapped by a maniacal former victim of the gangsters’ crime, these rival restauranteurs must unite for the greater good.
If that summary sounds zany, that’s because the film is absolutely bonkers. It really feels like a fever dream at points: it starts in a relatively composed manner, reminiscent of the bubbly gangster tone of the Saint’s Row game series, before plunging into the depths of unruliness. At first it just feels like Nishimura is going for a playful tone – combining some almost fantastical elements with a more grounded, yet fun, crime story – but by the end it feels like a completely different film.
And it’s hard to say whether that plays to the film’s strengths or not. One of the most common elements is the unprecedented musical numbers, which send the film’s narrative momentum crashing down. At first, these songs seem vibrant and playful, but by the fifth track proclaiming how much the characters love ramen, it becomes simply nauseating.
But this isn’t to say that none of the film’s wackier moments work. The entire thesis around the influence of social media in today’s landscape is a timely idea, and the editing is particularly tight, with some really visceral montages of Tatsu cooking up ramen – but more often than not they bog down a plot that never gets the chance to find its feet. This is of course a purposeful decision from Nishimura, wanting audiences fully immersed in his zany vision, but coherency is certainly lacking here.
Yet the most indelible scourge in Tokyo Dragon Chef is the overbearing voyeurism that feels not only unnecessary, but misogynistic. It first emerges in the film’s first act, as the camera lingers on the breasts of the sole female character, but takes an even more tacky turn when a catsuit-clad female YouTuber is introduced. Not only is her sexuality the only main feature of her character (the other of her perhaps being extraterrestrial), but the suggestiveness with which the camera ogles over her is startling – made even more unpleasant as one of the villain’s goons viscerally gropes her towards the end, in a moment that’s really hard to stomach. Why Nishimura felt the need to include this is unclear, but it adds nothing to the film, just causing revulsion.
And it’s a blight on a film that’s otherwise inoffensive in its cheesiness. Yes, the more eclectic moments don’t entirely fit with the tone, but they aren’t shocking and potentially triggering, and it’s a real shame the film had to go down that path. Aside from that, it’s watchable – nothing too special, but a serviceable Japanese action-comedy – but the really disappointing misogyny throughout makes it a very hard film to recommend.
Tokyo Dragon Chef will be on DVD & Digital Download from 25th January.