Director : Shion Sono
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Tomoko Karina, Akihiro Kitamura, Ryohei Suzuki, Nana Sieno, Riki Takeuchi, Shoko Nakagawa, Young Dais.
Approx Running Time : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: In an alternate Japan, territorial street gangs form opposing factions collectively known as the Tokyo Tribes. Merra, leader of the Wu-Ronz tribe of Bukuro crosses the line to conquer all of Tokyo. The war begins.
I’m not quite sure if there’s an adequate vocabulary of English words to describe Tokyo Tribe. The fact I’m still not able to explain what it was I’ve witnessed, trying to describe this film to fans of both Asian cinema, and regular Joe on the street, is nigh impossible. Like some bizarre music video mixed with Tarantino and Edgar Wright, crossed with a John Woo aesthetic, Tokyo Tribe is the kind of film that exists in a vacuum – it’s its own film, a film inexplicable to most and incomprehensible to almost all. The plot seems meaningless in place of what is described by the film’s own promotion as “the world’s first rap-battle musical film”. Featuring a thumping soundtrack and Shion Sono’s fluid camera-work, the film features gratuitous misogyny, violence, kung-fu, an earthquake, rape and gang warfare. Exactly why Tokyo Tribe exists is confusing; apparently based on a popular manga comic by Santa Inoue, the film’s disparate style and absurdist visual kineticism make for difficult intellectual viewing, but a dynamic visual treat for those inclined.
Plot Synopsis Courtesy IMDb: In an alternate Japan, territorial street gangs form opposing factions collectively known as the Tokyo Tribes. Merra, leader of the Wu-Ronz tribe of Bukuro joins forces with heavy hitting sadistic gangster Buppa of Buppa Town. With Buppa’s support, Merra aims to initiate a gang war between the Wu-Ronz and the Musashino Saru, and in a confrontation between the two attempts to kill popular member of the Musashino Saru – Kai. By mistake, Merra instead kills Kai’s friend Tera (a Musashino Saru member beloved by members of all Tribes since before their formation). This leads to the joining of forces between all of the Tokyo Tribes in an all out war against Merra and Buppa’s forces.
I write this with a smirk on my face: not being aware of director Shion Sono prior to this, I had to check his bio out to find out what the hell drugs he must have endured as a child. His IMDb bio contains this remarkable description:
The films of Shion Sono often tell the stories of socially marginalized teenagers or young adults who end up engaging in activities that involve murders, sexual abuse and criminal behaviour. Sono’s films in most of the cases contain scenes filled with graphic violence and blood that echo the long pinku eiga and anime tradition of Japanese cinema.
So that’s correct. This film is nuts, totally, utterly batshit crazy. From it’s Fast & Furious-echo all-CG tank taking out a building, the discombobulation of hearing the word “mothaf@cker” interjected into Japanese rap, garish Priscilla Queen Of The Desert-inspired set-design and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-styled fight choreography, sexual violence and rampant misogyny, there’s little taboo or cinematic visual cue not butchered into oblivion by Tokyo Tribe’s utterly insane narrative. The only thing missing was “Two Tribes Go To War”, which would have completed a musical miasma consisting of thumping bass-lines and rap themes, classical music and Japanese pop, infused with neon-hued cinematography and verité camera-work.
Almost all the film is told in song, with a few exceptions, and most of that is rap or gangsta rhymes, as the “alternate” Tokyo’s rival gangs – and there’s a few – go to war for control of the streets, and revenge. To be honest, I didn’t get a lot of what was happening as the film was going, other than Sono appears to have populated the film with as many big-breasted, super-hot Japanese actresses as he could alongside some of the most unattractive “gang” looking men he could find. The gang war element of the story is rather redundant, irrespective of language, and the film’s middle-finger to coherence is telling in the opening hour, as characters weave in and out of the narrative depending on what drugs Sono must have taken that day. As the film solidifies in its second hour, and the stakes for the characters become more obvious, the film kicks into gear in a way that isn’t just random beat-boxing and thudding underground bass kicks.
Anyone here young enough to remember Bazz Luhrmann’s gang-war take on Romeo + Juliet, and how he appropriated the language into a recognisable context through populism and modernity? Well, imagine that filtered through the lens of Japanese rap, an Asian influenced Straight Outta Compton, or the very worst elements of Who’s Line Is It Anyway. Sono also riffs on Kubrick, all but outright stealing an idea from A Clockwork Orange to provide one of the film’s more arresting moments of jaw-dropping disbelief. Tokyo Tribe is at times lyrically beautiful, and insouciantly horrifying, a blending of styles that shouldn’t mix and, in the end, still don’t in this film, but that’s not through lack of trying. It would appear my tolerance for bizarre Japanese acid-trippy cinema has been exhausted for the year, because I am in no hurry to either watch this again to catch stuff I missed, or catch-up on the sequel (again directed by Shion Sono) – that’s not to say I won’t recommend this film (and I have already) to my friends and enemies, both for the sheer thrill of imagining their faces when they make it to the hilarious CG tank.
The acting in this film is largely average, or at the very least over-the-top to a degree I found exhausting, especially the film’s resident thuggish bling-wearing boss-hog, played by Riki Takeuchi, who mugs his way through a dastardly performance so obnoxiously ridiculous I laughed when I probably wasn’t supposed to. The rest of the relatively younger cast all try hard, but between the mincing sexpot femme fatales and the spin-kicking boy-children and the obviously CG blood, the film becomes lost in its all-style-no-substance visual sublimity. I guess when one of the visual cues towering over the film is the constant “F@ck Da World” statement, it kinda makes more sense that Tokyo Tribe would turn out this way.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience Tokyo Tribe. I don’t think enough people have, to be honest, and I’ll be making it my mission to ensure I tell as many people as I can about it. The film makes almost zero sense whatsoever, and becomes buried in its own style towards the end, with seemingly no let-up in just how obscurely weird and non-sequitorial it all becomes, but to witness crazy this brazen and self-assured is rather refreshing considering the cookie-cutter crap churned out by Hollywood each year. I still can’t figure out whether I liked it, or bought into its brand of nutty parallel-universe fantasmagorica, but hell if I can’t deny it’s not the boldest, most astonishingly weird film I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some films. Tokyo Tribe won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those willing to embrace it’s uniqueness and brilliant don’t-give-a-shit style I think there’s something here for the brave, hardened few.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the scene with a gigantic spinning food blender fan sucky thing: that scene is perhaps the best in the film.