Tokyo Tribe

The iconic and inimitable Sion Sono applies his particular talents to a ridiculous and riveting underworld opera of sorts.
Tokyo Tribe

Image: supplied

Imagine a feature-length music video mash-up tied to the same setting and story, but cycling through different beats, rhymes, tune and tones. Imagine an all-singing celebration of crime and sleaze, rendered in the key of hip-hop. Imagine warring factions of street toughs tussling about turf over one steamy, seedy night. Imagine every gangster and dance film, no matter how clever or clichéd, intermingled in one offbeat concoction.

It’s the stuff that fuels the dreams cinephiles didn’t even know they had – and thanks to Sion Sono, such imaginings are now a reality. The iconic and inimitable Japanese auteur, fresh from jesting with the very fibre of film in his multi-genre movie mix Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, has applied his particular talents and purposeful meta-musings to an underworld opera of sorts. In the freewheeling and feverish frenzy that is Tokyo Tribe, the same guiding principles apply: embrace anarchy, try everything once, and when it comes to sex and violence, anything goes. As satire and subversion ripple through the swill of styles and subplots, tempers flare, shoes shuffle, and arguments – and almost all other discussions – are exchanged in rap, of course. 

The set-up is as easy as the outcome is over the top, born of too much testosterone jostling for power. In a cartoonish scenario that reaches into the small hours and beyond on a specific evening, 23 distinctive gangs roam around the city. With even the friendly posses restless, riled up, and ravenous for a piece of whatever action they can find, peaceful cohabitation is not an option. Apart from a shared quest for supremacy, difference is their source commonality – each group has their individual traits, including hangouts, outfits, colour schemes, temperaments, weaponry, riffs and refrains. 

As expressed in flowing verse, Yakuza boss Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi, Thermae Romae II) currently sits at the top of the heap, sheltering his eccentric son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka, Himizu), and sheltered by his oft-disrobed right-hand man Mera (Ryohei Suzuki, Hot Road). His plan is simple: wait, watch, and when the fights and frays reach their peak, swoop in and eliminate all of the competition. Complications arise when first a new batch of innocent ingénues excite his offspring and underling; then an ongoing feud between Mera and his chief rival, the idealistic Kai (rapper Young Dais), moves from professional to personal; and next, the missing daughter (Nana Seino, The Ninja War of Torakage) of the resident gangland high priest becomes Buppa’s problem. 

The narrative paths are plentiful, playing out in song-sized bites and punctuated with literal record scratches often provided by a deejaying grandmother. As this clearly sounds, the stories spun into a perhaps overlong whole are also nonsensical and pointless – it’s the absurdity, the exhibition and the imitation that drives Tokyo Tribe, as well as the liberal appropriations of and homages to a wealth of musicians and movies. Just as the heightened performances of the large cast are a means to an immensely entertaining end, subtlety, restraint and propriety are far from the film’s strong suits. With humour both silly and scathing, this is an effort that scratches out a map on a naked torso, emblazons “Fuck Da World” in large lettering in as many scenes as it possibly can, turns an unclad damsel in distress into a mechanism of mayhem, and boils much of the bloody bickering down to a literal battle over manhood measurements.

And yet, in the way that only writer/director Sono can, his adaptation of Santa Inoue’s popular manga of the same name overflows with as many thrills as on-screen spills. An impeccable eye for aesthetics, whether fluidly weaving with the camera through the midnight sheen of the grimy streets, or swiftly venturing into one of the many ultra-stylised yet always cheap-looking interiors, is only part of the appeal. Immaculate choreography furthers the visual energy, synchronised to the tempo of the constant thumping musical pulse, and accompanied by dialogue spat and sputtered in time. If the Step Up film franchise really stepped up to the streets as its sequels’ titles promised; if every martial arts movie kept to the beat in their brutality; if the mobster genre embraced both mania and mirth: even then, none could approach this level of ridiculousness at its most ravishing and riveting.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Tokyo Tribe
Director: Sion Sono
Japan, 2014, 116 mins

Japanese Film Festival

Adelaide: 10 – 12 and 17 – 19 October
Canberra: 15 – 19 October
Brisbane: 22 – 26 October
Perth: 29 October – 2 November
Sydney: 13 – 23 November
Melbourne: 27 November – 7 December

Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival

29 November – 14 December

Sarah Ward

Friday 21 November, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay