Review for Tokyo Dragon Chef
One of the pettier complaints about economic downturns and recessions is the diminishment of consumer choice. With less money flowing in the economy, companies tend to tighten their belts, cut out the less profitable, and in the extremes, shut down altogether; go out of business. It is such a pain to go for my weekly shop, and find that I can no longer buy the things I like, because the company has just stopped making them. That’s just as true for the entertainment business when times are tight; it’s the niche genres that suffer first, and compounded with the move to online streaming instead of physical product, suddenly pickings become slim for fans of genre entertainment. Eventually, things improve, and some other company comes along (occasionally started by the people who worked in the original company), to pick up the slack, but there’s always a sense of loss when a beloved label vanishes from shop shelves.
There are a few choice boutique labels releasing content from further afield in the UK, and I still have fond memories of several companies who are no longer with us, whose films I have loved reviewing for this site. Last year, Terracotta Distribution ceased licensing and distributing films, although they continue to operate as an online store for other companies’ products. Over the years they had the most eclectic catalogue of all. Every film they released was just so different from the rest; it was like a treasure chest. You may not like the colour of every gemstone, but they were all gems, and over the years, I’ve looked at films like Sparrow, The Fox Family, Petty Romance, Lady Assassin, Hansel & Gretel, and Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack. The label is gone at this point; everything is out of print, but there may be a few straggling copies out in the wilder edges of retail worth picking up. If you’re lucky, you might find a copy of Tokyo Dragon Chef...
Tatsu was a yakuza, but having served a prison sentence, the world he walks out into is markedly different from that he remembers. However, he is welcomed back into freedom by fellow gang member Ryu, but he learns that while he was inside, a group led by the enigmatic Gizumo has been taking on and eliminating the gangs. Tatsu and Ryu don’t have a gang to go back to, but Ryu has a plan, which now that Tatsu is out, they can put into motion. Tatsu learned how to cook while inside and Ryu wants to open a ramen restaurant. It’s such a success, that other former yakuza latch onto the idea. But having dealt with the yakuza, Gizumo now turns his violent attention to the ramen restaurants.
Tokyo Dragon Chef gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic PAL transfer on this DVD, with the choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo Japanese with optional English subtitles. The image is clear and sharp enough for a digitally shot film. There is that slight sense of softness, and the detail levels diminish for darker and brighter scenes. But the biggest issue with the visuals might be some aggressive moiré, especially on those stripy yakuza suits. The audio is fine, there’s enough action and ambience presented in the surround audio, keeping the dialogue clear. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos, but the high point of the film is the music, with some eclectic tunes, and more than a few musical numbers. One problem might be a poorly placed layer change in the middle of a music cue.
You get one disc in an Amaray style case, which autoplays a trailer for Ameba before booting to a static menu. You’ll find the following extras on the disc...
Behind the Scenes (18:49)
International Trailer (1:40)
Photo Gallery (1:10 slideshow)
The film also begins with a 0:56 introduction from director Yoshihiro Nishimura.
There may be a recession and all, but if Japan can still put out surreal and anarchic comedies like Tokyo Dragon Chef, then there is still hope to be had in the world. If Tampopo was a musical comedy action movie, then this would be it. I love when films turn out to be genuine surprises, a chance to see something unlike anything else I have experienced. I haven’t had this kind of feeling with a Japanese film since I watched Survive Style 5+, and that has been far too long a gap.
It starts off with a sense of predictability to its comedy. After all, there are plenty of funny films out there capitalising on the formalised obnoxiousness of the yakuza gangs, exaggerating it to the extreme, and on occasion shifting it to a wholly different, and inappropriate situation, in this case ramen restaurants. It’s always fun to see this kind of hyper-masculinity and brotherhood applied to things which don’t warrant it, such as finding the perfect ramen recipe. And then Tokyo Dragon Chef throws in its first musical number.
Indeed this surreal, anarchic, action-comedy is a musical surreal, anarchic, action comedy, and there’s been a lot of effort put into getting just the right songs for this daft story. I can’t imagine how hard it is to formulate lyrics about ramen, but Tokyo Dragon Chef excels. You have these two former gangsters setting up shop, trying to perfect their recipe, and find that surprisingly, Youtube influencers are the best, if somewhat fickle way to attract custom. Then two retired yakuza from another gang are also released from prison and seeing Tatsu and Ryu’s success, decide to set up their own restaurant, in this case a mobile restaurant parked right outside, and they get their own, somewhat alien influencer to promote their wares.
That has all the hallmarks of a classic rivalry, but then Gizumo and his weird gang show up, with a whole heap of back-story, and a plan to make money by putting all the ramen restaurants out of business and grabbing the real estate. Naturally the rivalry has to be put aside as the restaurateurs have to face this challenge. Throw in ramen connoisseur Ramen Girl Kokoro, who has her own beef with Gizumo, and you have one of the silliest, one of the funnest movies I have seen in quite some time.
Sometimes a DVD is all you need. Tokyo Dragon Chef would have looked better in HD for sure, but its production values, small scale, and digital cinematography all mean that it looks solid enough in SD as well. If you can still find it, the DVD is well worth seeking out, and failing that, it is available to stream at the time of writing.