A Jap hip hop gangsta musical, Sion Sono’s latest is set in an alternative Tokyo where the rival gangs that rule the city’s outer districts have been maintaining an uneasy truce for years, until, over the course of one night, a murky conspiracy is set in motion to set clan against clan and bring war to the streets. Can the various antagonistic pimps, hustlers, strippers, dealers and loved up teens overcome their differences, beat the bad guys and restore peace?
Of course they bloody can. This isn’t a film of murky moral complexity, this is an exhilarating, garish manga-based phantasmagoria, much more concerned with giving us a wild ride than with such fripperies as plot or storytelling or making a whole lot of sense. Filmed largely in fluid roaming steadicam takes that must have taken an age to set up and choreograph, Tokyo Tribe is a feast of outrageous action against over-the-top set design. The screen is full of scantily clad gyrating girls and splattery ultra-violence, when it’s not full of eccentrically dressed MC’s telling you what’s up. Rather than giving us anything authentically human, most of the actors are channelling hip hop archetypes, exemplified by Riki Tekeuchi’s utterly grotesque turn as chief bad guy Lord Buppa, a leering, groping cannibal king in a gold Elvis suit, eyeballs rolling so far back in his head it suggests he’s permanently overdosing on elephant tranquilisers.
If all this sounds like a blast, well, it is, up to a point, but after the first 20 minutes or so a certain repetitiveness creeps in. Once again, there’s the feeling with Sion Sono that he’s not really in control of his material. He’s having too much fun to be concerned with consistency of tone, or getting over characters and story. The result is a whole lot of cool stuff that doesn’t really slow down or speed up or build. Whilst it’s never boring, irritations creep in. The various ‘tribes’ are introduced to us over and over again, whilst the evil plot at the centre of the tale is left largely unexplained. A military tank is introduced with much fanfare only to be utterly forgotten about. A dick size joke that should, at best, have been a throwaway gag is allowed to take over the final moments of the film. Elements don’t gel; at times it plays like a Rooney/Garland ‘let’s put on a show right here’ flick, at others like Tinto Brass’s Caligula. The ‘one love’ vibe that ends the movie doesn’t fit with the fetishised weaponry and wall-to-wall arse- kicking. The colourful cartoon fun stylings don’t sit well with the rape and torture scenes.
Sure, some of these glaring contradictions may be part of the hip hop culture Sono is representing. But like a rapper yelling ‘Peace! Out!’ after a set filled with Glock-wielding revenge fantasies and badass bragging… well, you find yourself wishing for a little more self-awareness and self-control. The sexual politics especially are pretty horrible, from the opening scene where a naïve female cop is stripped to the waist to be used as a map of Tokyo by knife-wielding bad boy Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki, who, frankly, did not die enough) practically all the film’s female characters are used as squealing eye candy, when they aren’t being used as kung fu kicking eye candy: it’s a rare shot of female lead Nana Seino that doesn’t feature the gusset of her white panties.
Still, the music by B.C.D.M.G throbs and pulses effectively, and it has energy to burn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But I’m still waiting for Sono to give us the undeniably great, mad film that he clearly has the chops to deliver. Tokyo Tribe: big fun on screen, bad taste in mouth. Peace. Out.
Watch the trailer: