A frenetic rap musical, complete with over-the-top action and nonstop energy. You’re getting exactly what you pay for.
“Coming to you straight from the ass end of hell!”
People have asked me what the big draw is to Asian cinema over standard Hollywood fare, and I think now all that needs to be said is “Tokyo Tribe”. Enter Sion Sono. Like his equally cult-labelled peer Takashi Miike, Sono is known for his unique style and visual flare. Sono works in weird, controversial subjects and has made some excellent films out of suicide cults, serial killers and underage incest. While Miike relishes in the weirdness of his topics and plays up to that silliness, Sono is more serious, and the end results end up looking more polished and artistic. Tokyo Tribe might lack the seriousness, but there’s a lot of professionalism there.
One of about eight thousand Sono movies made that year, the plot of Tokyo Tribe, insofar as the plot is necessary, takes place in a possibly futuristic Tokyo, where various gangs rule the streets. Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki) is the leader of the Bukuro Wu-RONZ, a vicious and violent gang which has close ties to Buppa (the legendary Rikki Takeuchi), a ruthless crime lord who seems to own all of Tokyo. When the Wu-RONZ kills a member of the peaceful Musashino Saru tribe, its leader Kai (rapper Young Dais) is torn between the morals of his gang and the desire for vengeance.
Meanwhile, a young woman calling herself Sunmi (Nana Seino) gets captured by the Bukuro and taken to Buppa’s palace, where she and some other girls are threatened to be pimped out, turned into sex slaves or made into living furniture by Buppa’s creepy son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka). Her ambiguously gendered friend Yon (Shunsuke Daito) rescues her and the two set off on their own adventure to kick as much ass as possible.
Tokyo Tribe is a rap musical that puts emphasis on style over substance. The opening shot is long and flows through various groups of people, originally making us think this entire movie is going to be done in one take. It gives us a taste of what the life down in these streets is like before any piece of storytelling happens, and sets our expectations for the rest of the film.
Let’s focus on the bad stuff first, mainly because the good stuff largely overshadows them. The story is dumb, and even though it’s largely a retread of countless other similar films, is confusing in places – often ignoring logic for showmanship. The acting from the rappers is wooden, and the rapping from the actors is even worse. It’s not like it’s enough to put you off the film but there are times when just hamming it up as much as possible is not enough to save a scene (I’m looking at you, Takeuchi). Tokyo Tribe’s visual insanity can tire you out, and can make the 116-minute running time feel a lot longer.
But it’s not like it tries to hide any of that. There’s no pretension here, and it certainly looks like everyone involved was having a good time when they were making it. Within the tribes – especially the Musashino Saru – there’s a sense of camaraderie, with excellent chemistry between everyone, even rivals and enemies. I’m reminded of big song-and-dance stage spectaculars where the cast and crew have done this for so long and so often that they’re basically family now. I’d love to see a blooper reel. Throughout it all the audience is enjoying it because the people on screen are too.
All of this can be a bit daunting. So guiding us through this barrage of beats and bright lights is Show (Shota Sometani), a young MC who come and goes, providing us with just enough narration for us to understand what’s happening, and giving us a sort-of protagonist we can relate to. He’s easy-going and kind in a world where people are living extreme, heightened versions of life. Young Dias is fine if a bit bland in the lead role, but Suzuki as Mera shines. His turn as a sadistic, over-the-top gang boss is one of the most entertaining aspects of the film and he doesn’t hold back. Suzuki emulates Takeuchi’s expressions and mannerisms to give a sort of Takeuchi-lite, complete with extended thong sequences and ridiculous swordplay. Nana Seino and Shunsuke Daito are about as bland as Young Dais but their high-flying kung fu scenes more than make up for it. And then there’s the rest of the cast, which includes a beatboxing waitress, a gang leader in Samurai gear, a dominatrix leader, human furniture, a perverted high priest and an uncountable amount of gang members. To go through it all would take an eternity.
When someone isn’t fighting, they’re singing (or they’re doing both at once), and the music plays a large role here. There’s almost always a beat running throughout the scenes, and they’re all crazy catchy; you’ll find yourself tapping your feet or nodding on more than one occasion. Having professional rappers in a lot of the roles is a great idea, and gives credibility to some of these larger-than-life characters. Saying this is a rap musical is likely to turn some people off, but then again there’s probably very little in this entire picture that they’d actually like.
More than once the movie toes the line between cinema and exploitation – taking cues from Pink movies and yakuza classics – but what makes this melting pot work is Sion Sono’s seasoned expertise. With dozens of years of experience, he deftly handles the visual onslaught with ease turning what could be a nightmare of light and colour into a spectacle. The set designer deserves some praise here, for the sheer amount of detail put into each scene, turning what could easily look like a set into an almost-reality. It’s not quite Tokyo – there are never any tall buildings in the background so you’re reminded it’s not real – but it never gives the impression of being in a soundstage either. Together with the music, the dialogue, the batshit story (which is essentially just a buildup to a pretty funny puncline), and the action, Tokyo Tribe is very much the sum of its parts, for better or worse.
Verdict: An instant cult classic, Tokyo Tribe is set to be a staple of midnight cinema screenings for a long time to come.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System:
Overall enjoyability: 8/10
Musical stylings: mostly 4/4
Unmolested female characters: 3/100
Inferiority complexes: a bazillion/10
Tokyo Tribe (2015)
Also known as: トーキョ．トライブ
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Santa Inoue, Sion Sono
Ryohei Suzuki – Mera
Young Dais – Kai
Nana Seino – Sunmi
Shunsuke Daito – Yon
Shota Sometani – MC Show
Yosuke Kubozuka – Nkoi
Riki Takeuchi – Buppa
Ryuta Sato – Tera san
Shoko Nakagawa – Kesha
Mika Kano – Erendia
Takuya Ishida – Kim
Yui Ichikawa – Norichan
Denden – High Priest
Bernard Ackah – Zandakinsu
Joey Beni – Kamekichi
Aki Hiraoka – Mai
Arisa Sakamoto – Usagi