To say that Tokyo Tribe is overwhelming, excessive and at times nonsensical wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given the presence of director Sion Sono (Suicide Club/ Guilty of Romance). Yet Tokyo Tribe is much more cartoonish than his previous efforts, with ridiculously sadistic villians and a kind of over the top hyper violence even for Japanese film (Perhaps that’s aside from the oeuvre Takeshi Miike).
It’s all about turf war and rap battles in a seedy, yet strange candy coloured futuristic Tokyo ravaged by earthquakes and ineffectual law enforcement. Not unlike The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg, almost the entire film is sung, or perhaps a better description is rapped, over endlessly evolving hip hop beats. In fact many of the actors are actually legit Japanese rappers. In this sense it’s an update of West Side Story, or perhaps closer to the point the terrifying Mario Van Peebles vehicle Rappin, yep, a pretty terrible hip hop musical from 1985.
With so much dialogue exposition is easy, as the gangster rappers each introduce themselves and their tribes in rhyme and boast about how terrifying they are. Later they try and explain what’s actually happening, and if that’s not enough there’s even a chilled out MC who mumbles low key what in most other films would be voice over. It’s truly a bizarre spectacle, where who’s who, what they want, what’s actually happening all become pretty meaningless as the film progresses. All you can do is lie back and let the madness wash over you, which is actually quite possible, as the deep hip hop grooves just lull you from one hyper violent episode to the next.
With geysers of blood, severed fingers kept in a box for snacking on, and ludicrous all out action sequences, bad taste is the order of the day. It’s classic Japanese exploitation cinema that doesn’t take itself very seriously at all. There’s also a few nods to the likes of The Warriors, A Clockwork Orange, Bruce Lee and even Kill Bill. It has a very artificial look, like it has been shot on a sound stage, yet it does allow Sono the control to indulge in long single takes where the camera can literally go anywhere.
All this madness not surprisingly comes from a Manga, from Inoue Santa’s Tokyo Tribe2 from 1997, the ultra violence was clearly there, however the idea to turn it into a hip hop musical you’d have to suggest comes from Sono. There is a certain kind of madness here, a little like a dumb knock knock joke, particularly when you get the payoff later in the film for what launched this gang war. It’s so ludicrious a premise that it actually elevates the film exponentially.