Tokyo Tribe (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 116 minutes approx.
If there is one thing Japanese provocateur Sion Sono cannot be accused of it is playing it safe with his films. Just when you think you have him figured out, he switches gears and heads off into a new direction while his trademark boldness remains firmly in place.
Sono’s latest work, Tokyo Tribe, based on the manga by Santa Inoue, continues this trend of beguiling his audience with another esoteric viewing experience that defies any expectations. The central conceit of this film is that much of the dialogue and narration is delivered via rap, incorporating all of the bespoke vocabulary and cultural affectations, making this one for the kids – well it would if it wasn’t crammed full of extreme violence, sexual imagery and other adult content.
The plot is arguably the flimsiest one yet for Sono, largely due to it not following the manga storyline instead being an extension to it, yet Sono manages to get nearly two hours of wild entertainment out of it. The good news is that one doesn’t need any prior knowledge of Inoue’s original work heading into this film.
Quite simply each district of Tokyo is ruled by a different gang but evil overlord Bubba (Riki Takeuchi) of Bukura Wu-Ronz wanting sole control. To achieve this he plans to take out his peace preaching enemies Kai (Young Dais) and Tera (Ryuta Sato) of Musashino Saru, then incite the other tribes to wipe each other out. However, the presence of a young woman Sunmi (Nana Seino) throws an unexpected spanner in the works.
Sunmi’s situation is the closest thing to a subplot in this otherwise rudimentary testosterone fuelled excuse for sex and violence set to repetitive Hip-Hop beats. She is abducted by Bubba’s subordinates to work at their brothel, where her newly added internet profile catches the attention of the perverts of Musashino Sura. When one pays a visit Tera and Kai rush to stop him, the fallout from this kick starting the animus between the other gangs.
Having not read the manga I am unsure if it is supposed to be a satire on the Hip-Hop world or an affectionate if leftfield tribute, especially since the Hip-Hop culture isn’t one readily associated with the Japanese. Sono’s interpretation though is infused with his trademark black humour to suggest his tongue has been bolted to his cheek; yet he went to great lengths in order to inject some authenticity to the rap side of things, collaborating with top Hip-Hop group BCDMG for the music and employing other genuine rap artists to perform them.
Of course, if like me you can’t stand rap this makes for a painful experience but I will concede it works as an effective gimmick to help the narrative move forward. This is mostly courtesy of Sono alumnus Shota Sometani, who wanders in an out of scenes when required, with much of the cast joining in to reveal their agendas or start a fight.
The result is that the cast is made up of larger than life characters, especially on the antagonist side. Aside from Bubba there is his number one henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki), a toned and buff egomaniac who believes he is God’s gift to women and packing a Lord Flasheart sized lunchbox. Unfortunately, aside from providing us with a physical antagonist, Mera is also totemic of the overriding misogyny present in this film, which again is either mocking the macho bravado found in rap videos or gleefully indulging in it, so oblique are the lines of intent.
Female viewers may not like how this sets Women’s Lib back a hundred years, with the women presented here either as half-naked window dressing or exploited sexual commodities. Sunmi initially appears to be the alternative to this with her impressive martial arts prowess but she is soon disrobed and naked like the rest. Plus she wears mostly short skirts so her high kicking action scenes provide extra fan service if you get my meaning.
Beneath this blinged up, teenage wet dream is a moral of the importance of rival communities coming together and putting their differences aside for the greater good. The film actually opens with a positive proclamation from teen fighting machine Yon (Kikoto Sakaguchi) who wants to one day bring hope to the district. He goes on to play a significant part in the final showdown but it doesn’t prepare us for what is to come.
Sono takes some cues for this climactic fight from the gang fights in Takashi Miike’s Crows Zero films, although this one doesn’t drag on so much, while an opening three minute, one take one camera shot recalls the famous opening to Orson Welles’s Touch Of Evil. Sadly, the use of a poor looking CGI tank and rather weak bloodletting is an uncharacteristically lazy touch for someone usually more practical as Sono.
The cast is list too numerous to credit in detail but Sono has again has managed to persuade his actors to assume some interesting and outrageous characters. That said, this is probably the first film where the abysmal pantomime “acting” of Riki Takeuchi isn’t out of place but he still manages to be exceptionally annoying! Keen eyed viewers will also spot popstrel Shoko Nakagawa as Kesha, Bubba’s daughter, and wrestling legend Yoshihiro Takayama as one of the thugs.
In the Sono canon, Tokyo Tribe is closest to Why Don’t You Play In Hell? in feel and tone but in a different league. I won’t call it a misstep for Sono as it is a typically unique, wildly brash and bonkers affair, but it isn’t as immediately affecting as his previous works. Perhaps it is the threadbare plot or the rap aspect, or maybe Sono has set such a high standard for himself and viewer expectations but this may need a second watch to be fully appreciated.
Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD MA Audio
Brand New 1080p HD Transfer
Making Of Documentary
Limited Edition 24-page Collectors booklet
Rating – *** ½
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