Writer: Sion Sono (script) Santa Inoue (manga)
Cast: Young Dais, Ryouhei Suzuki, Nana Seino, Shota Sometani, Riki Takeuchi
Running time: 117mins
The lowdown: Ichi the Killer with a transfusion of West Side Story is one way to describe Tokyo Tribe. The most dazzling teen movie since Scott Pilgrim is another. The latest film from Japanese provocateur Sion Sono is cinematic MDMA. The plot: rival gang war, organised crime and sentimental bromance is standard stuff. The rush comes in the telling, a narcotic blast of hip-hopera, kung-fu, nudie exploitation, yakuza silliness and bizarro horror. Addiction is mandatory.
The full verdict: Tokyo Tribe will split audiences in much the same way various gang members are bisected by the myriad katana samurai swords waved around over Tokyo Tribe’s two hour running time.
Iconoclastic director Sono’s previous work includes psychosexual horror Guilty of Romance, splatter favourite Suicide Circle and touching drama The Land of Hope.
His mission statement here seems to be pay supercharged homage to every gang movie, gangster movie and musical ever made. Escape From New York, A Clockwork Orange, The Warriors, Ichi the Killer, The Last Dragon, Scarface, West Side Story, Moulin Rouge, that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plus Nikkatsu studio pinku films; it’s all here. Set to a hip-hop soundtrack performed by the cast, Japanese rap musicians taking central roles.
A plot summary could go something like this. In a dystopian Tokyo of the near future, the capital city is controlled by various criminal gangs. Most ferocious of these is the Bukuro district’s Wu-Ronz, controlled by the sadistic Mera (Suzuki) for insane, cannibalistic gang boss Buppa (Takashi Miike regular Riki Takeuchi).
When a member of the peace promoting Musashino gang stumbles into Bukuro, Buppa uses it as an excuse to wipe out all Tokyo’s “tribes” so he can rule supreme.
Only Musashino’s coolest member, Kai (Young Dais, the film’s lyricist), forced to team up with mysterious martial arts babe Sounmi (Seino) and her equally lethal brother, dare face Buppa. But, Kai will need the other tribes by his side…
Describing Tokyo Tribe is a like recalling a dream. And with the preponderance of mammary gland themed sets and a bosomy MILF in evening dress, it’s a Freudian one at that (the adolescent sexual politics aren’t as imaginative as the filmmaking).
At the top of the film a granny DJ spins tunes “from the ass end of Hell”. An omniscient MC (Sometani) raps various plot machinations in a flat monotone. Buppa’s son has a room of human furniture bent to his will. Everybody is Japanese and rapping and shouting. Everything is sexually charged. There’s gunplay and kung-fu and over there a willowy girl beat boxing. A tank is driving around Kabukicho, Japan’s pleasure district. The fourth wall is frequently shattered, making this a lucid dream. Devil worship pops up for a brief moment.
And, the pace and visual bravura never slackens.
Credit then to Sion, loosely basing his tale on Santa Inoue’s manga Tokyo Tribe2, who delivers a movie with the undisciplined enthusiasm of a young man and a directorial control honed over two decades of filmmaking.
Fight scenes and musical numbers are choreographed to the smallest detail to flow over long takes, with props also due to cinematographer Daisuke Soma. Shots resemble panels of exquisite comic book art ripped off the page. CGI is subtly and not-so subtly employed to heighten an already sky-high air of unreality. The climactic street battle is a smackdown of excitement to rival The Raid 2’s prison yard brawl (yes, it’s that good).
A schoolboy joke punchline has sledgehammer comments to make on the nature of warfare, but that’s all the social subtext you’re getting.
But, with blockbuster cinema increasingly factory line predictable, this is the blast of cinematic excitement $200m can no longer buy you.
And if it’s too loud (or too fast, or too weird) you’re too old.