Nobody has quite the same grasp on the enfant terrible director as Japan: the 1960s and 70s had Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukusaku; the modern-day has Takashi Miike and the ever unpredictable Sion Sono. Japanese cinema has never had to try hard to find a provocateur filmmaker; while Sono may not have the reputation of the aforementioned wild auteur peers, his latest – Tokyo Tribe, ensure he isn’t all too far away. Based on Santa Inoue’s Manga series TOKYO TRIBE2, Sono fuses gang culture, Yakuza, High Manga tropes, Hip Hop and Martial Arts. That convergence of style, form and genre alone alludes to the divisive nature of a bizarre film.
In this hyper-real version of Tokyo, territorial street gangs form opposing factions collectively known as the Tokyo Tribes. Each of which represents a different style and ideology of hip hop, from its fashion and delivery to their erratic levels of aggression. Mera, leader of the Wu-Ronz tribe of Bukuro, at the request of his boss, Buppa, instigates a gang war that will end all tribes. Complicating matters further is a kingpin’s missing Daughter and the Musashino Saru tribe that preach peace and love. Completing this jigsaw is the rapping, every gang has their hip hop musical numbers – even the narrator raps in the form of Shota Sometani’s MC Show.
Stating that characters rap would undersell the fact vastly, this is a rock opera by any other name. There is nary a spoken word in the first 40 minutes, get used to that idea and the film becomes an idiosyncratic joy like none before. At least in the West. This is an inspired mix of Bollywood by way of hip hop. If that is a molehill too far, or your taste doesn’t extend to the genre, Tokyo Tribe is quite simply not for you.
The fact that Japanese actors are giving rap a go speaks volumes for how game the cast is; even if they aren’t very good their zeal is infectious. As raw as they are, Sono has shored up the musical core with the seeding of real hip hop artists. The most impressive of which is Young Dais (of J-rap group “NORTH COAST BAD BOYZ) as Musashino Saru’s Kai. As well as having the hip-hop chops from his day job his acting has the sort of honest humility that you get from non-professional actors, a quality that lends so much charm to his hero status. Contrariwise is the barely recognisable bleach-blonde Ryohei Suzuki as Mera, as an unleashed flurry of rage, anarchy and machismo, for an actor to hang the film on, you could ask for no more. His rap skills may not on par with some of the ringers, nevertheless he has most of the memorable numbers throughout. Shota Sometani also commits to a role that is 100% rap.
Outside of the key players, using such a perverse hip hop style creates some delirious and strange moments. Buppa’s (Riki Takeuchi) beat-boxing maid is sure to go down in cult legend. Approaching the use of hip hop academically and you’ll find a film that comes to represent all aspects of the culture vying for dominance through violence; it’s a lively means of placing a real world context onto an unreal film.
The action choreography is equally accomplished in its marriage of traditional martial arts and street dance with its cast of many batting people upside the head with gold katana’s, baseball bat’s and capoeira-like acrobatics by Nana Seino’s Sunmi. As fantastically choreographed as on both sides as it is, this is hip-hopera is a gleefully camp and absurd action romp that is best being swept up by. Stop and think for one second and the magic may escape. This status is clarified by the utter idiocy of the final revelation and the inspired design ethic. Internal set design is saturated in gold with sets that harks back to the Egyptian and Roman epics of the 50s. External sets and its many hundreds of extras belong to an unreal Tokyo akin to a drug fueled neon dystopia that evokes the legacy of animé classic Akira.
From the western perspective there is very little out there like Tokyo Tribe, and this reviewer believes Sion Sono to be a mad genius for pulling such a contrary and messy project off. Make no mistakes there are many flaws with inconsistent musical composition and misogyny being the biggest targets. Speaking of the misogyny it would be churlish to overlook the introduction of Tokyo by using a topless, busty Japanese woman’s stomach as map. Such misogyny is inherent to the world of organised crime, even so the sheer audacity Sono had in making such a fundamentally weird mainstream feature is rampant with the same passion that put Japan on the cinematic map. Few films in 2015 will reach the same singular, flashy heights of Tokyo Tribe.