IN SELECTED UK AND IRISH CINEMAS: 22nd May 2015
ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: 15th June 2015
RUNNING TIME: 116 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tokyo, sometime in the near future. A city which is plagued by torrential rain and controlled by territorial street gangs who kill anyone who steps on their turf except for the Musashino Saru, who preach friendship, peace and love, and are therefore hated by all the other gangs. A group of girls in the Ikebukuro district are rounded up and taken to Buppa Town, ruled by cannibal gangster Lord Bubba, a man who not only holds meetings with politicians but is in league with Merra, leader of the Wu-Ronz tribe of Bukuro. They aim to take over the city by turning the gangs against each other, but initially Mera plans to kill Deguchi Saru, his old high school friend who is now leader of the Musashiro Saru by luring him to Buppa Town…
Every now and again you count on a really odd film that screams ‘Cult Movie’ to come out of Japan, and the latest one, a film that is amazingly getting a limited UK and Eire cinema release courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, is Tokyo Tribe, from Suicide Club and Love Exposure director Shion Sono, not a filmmaker I have experienced before but certainly one with considerable flair, imagination and audacity, and who seems to be able to churn films out at a pace rivalling that of the somewhat similar Miike Takashi. Imagine The Warriors and Streets Of Fire mixed together and then done as rap with a bit of Yakuza throw in, and you’ve pretty much got Tokyo Tribe, and even if you don’t like it you have to admire Sono for dreaming up such an idea and then putting it on screen. It’s one of those films that I initially loved in its opening scene, than got irritated when I realised at least 80% of it was going to be in rap [not a musical genre that I can say is a favourite of mine despite definitely being an admirer of certain specific groups and artists], but, after a further half an hour or so of watching the film, I got used to it and actually began to rather enjoy the constant rapping of virtually everyone in the film.
If you think about it hip hop is actually a strange genre to catch on in the very introvert, polite nation that is Japan, but it is certainly doing so. Tokyo Tribe is based on a manga and from what I gather the film is reasonably faithful to its source but has considerably altered some of the characters. I don’t know how the manga introduces its world, but the film does it in a manner which is convoluted but works out very well. After seeing two kids playing on a roof, we follow a character, Chow, as he walks down an increasingly busy street which includes such delights as a man crying: “the world is ending” and an old lady DJ on some decks. The intoxicating, Blade Runner-type colours help make this lengthy tracking shot quite exhilarating as Chow raps about what life is like in this world. Then the words ’60 seconds earlier’ take us to some cops on the beat, and the very attractive lady cop in the car gets out amidst jeers to bust a drug dealer, who ends up manhandling her and enlightens her, and us, about the various gangs while keeping a knife to her body as if it were a pencil on a map. We get a fantastic montage showing all the gangs in their differing headquarters as they rap verses of what seems to be the same track but in different rapping styles set against different beats. This is great stuff, and it almost feels like you’re watching a fresh new kind of musical. Then the story ‘proper’ starts when a Misashino Saru boy, a character we will sometimes return to as he wonders through the events that we are about to witness, starts to rap about what happened over one night.
The plot soon gets quite complicated, but to be honest you will really need to know is that some girls are kidnapped by the really bad guys, who want to rule over everyone else. It’s probably not spoilerific to tell you, because you’ll probably guess it, that eventually the gangs will need to set aside their differences, and that the peaceful Misashino Saru will need to get tough. Much of the first part of the story concerns the girls who are taken to be slaves and worse, and there’s quite a nasty edge to some of this, peaking in a really uncomfortable scene when one of the kidnapped girls insists someone rapes her, and he begins to do so while rapping. There’s a definite whiff of misogyny to bits of the film, and more leering shots of women [though undeniably very attractive women] than even Michael Bay would consider having, while Sono decides his film has to features three separate scenes with flick-knives being drawn across bare female breasts, though some of this is balanced out by having some of its female cast members burst into action to kick ass at regular intervals, and at times it seems to be slightly mocking the more dubious aspects of some American rap, like when someone raps on about: “violence and money, sex and bitches”, though it often seems to be celebrating these things too. I suppose it’s only appropriate that a film which seems to be on the verge of really exploring and analysing the contradictions of rap culture should itself end up being somewhat contradictory in what it’s actually trying to say about it.
Visually Tokyo Tribe achieves quite a lot with its small budget, especially with its vivid use of colour, like one headquarters being largely gold, and there are some wonderfully weird touches throughout, like a red room full of naked people being forced to pose as furniture for one of the main bad guys, or a Shinto-style priest who turns up in a hologram holding a model of Tokyo Tower, or an enormous circular saw in a wall. The sense of menace in the first half dissipates a bit as the story resolves itself into a series of martial arts brawls which are sometimes quite inventive – my favourite was the fight and hip hip dance on a restaurant table – and well staged, if a little short, though they tend to suffer from shakycam where you sometimes can’t really see who’s doing what to who at times. Elsewhere though Daisuke Sôma’s cinematography is very impressive and favours gorgeous long, roaming takes over headache-inducing editing, which is nice to see. Some shots must have taken forever to set up. There’s a bit of CG arterial blood spray [and one horrendous CG tank] but the violence is mostly quite tame and the film as a whole seems to get goofier as it goes along, though the ‘put your hands in the air’ ending does work and the film’s messages of the futility of war and violence and ‘why can’t we all have our place in his world and live peacefully no matter how odd we may seem’ are well presented.
The hip hop is fairly varied though it could have been more so, and it was obvious to me that much of the cast are not really rappers, though some do a better job than others and a few are really good indeed. None of the songs, all by a group called B.C.D.M.G. are really memorable except for the catchy end number, which is a big shame – in fact I remember some of the beats either behind the words or heard on their own better. They help drive the film along at a rapid pace. Too much of the lyrics are either exposition or patriarchal stuff like too much US rap, but considering that most of them are in Japanese, the subtitlers have done an excellent job of translating them into English so they make some sense or rhyme. It must have been a horrendously difficult job. There are times when the basic premise of the film is exploited really well and the film then soars as a result, becoming genuinely adrenalising, but for much of the time it’s not quite used to its full potential and it seems like Sono was having too much fun to focus on the parts of his film which drastically need improving, I mean how on earth was a joke about someone’s dick size allowed to take over the last couple of minutes of the film?
The often eccentrically dressed characters, many of which come across as bizarre Japanese versions of hip hop archetypes or characters in computer games, are colourful and fun to be with even if the idea of a bunch of Asian performers trying to act ‘black’ leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and Tokyo Tribe is fun to be with as a whole despite its awkward shifts in tone and certain elements which don’t quite gel. I imagine that, with the right audience and superb sound, it could be a total blast at the cinema. And if you’re a big rap fan, I reckon you’ll love this movie. For me, I admired its nerve and at times it really did ‘get me going’ in the right manner, but it has some issues and I can’t help but think that there could be a better gang/rap movie to come along from some country somewhere in the world. Saying that, I’m off out after I write this review, and I do feel like making a fool of myself and attempting to rap to everyone I come across – in Japanese.