Review: Tokyo Tribe (2014)

Tokyo Tribe is an insane film. It’s hard to grapple with the depths of its madness. It’s a gonzo rap musical set within a fictional Tokyo underworld where colourful gangs do battle for turf, but even that unusual description does little to illuminate the film’s weirdness. Prolific Japanese director Shion Sono usually pumps out multiple films a year, which means he works at a furious pace, developing, shooting, and editing films in mere months. He doesn’t spend his scant time crafting intricate story structures or mapping out detailed characterizations. He works on the fly. This being the case, Tokyo Tribe doesn’t play at all like a typical film—even a typical grindhouse flick. It’s one-of-a-kind trash.

The ramshackle plot follows a battle between the leader (Young Dais) of a fun-loving gang in a underground Tokyo and a monstrous cannibal gangster (Riki Takecuchi), who along with his sicko son, Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), and underboss Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), plans to wipe out the street gangs and become the “Devil of Asia.” Throw in the kick-ass virginal daughter (Nana Seino) of a High Priest and an MC (Shota Sometani) who directly addresses the camera in monotone verses, and you’ve got the ingredients of a bizarre cinematic cocktail.

Don’t worry if you can’t follow that plot description. Tokyo Tribe doesn’t thrive off niceties of plot. It’s a film that flows from moment to moment, sometimes exploding into bursts of martial arts violence, at other times playing like a nightmarish music video. Like the percussive beats that underscore the musical numbers, Tokyo Tribe is relentless. It’s always loud, always garish, always new, often ugly, and frequently repugnant. It’s always on. Its intensity makes it a tiring film and the almost two-hour runtime only exacerbates its exhausting nature.

But despite its insanity and the absolute lack of thematic substance at its core, Tokyo Tribe does have one prime virtue going for it: originality. There’s nothing like it. Although it may seem to be the result of Shion Sono mainlining Jet Set Radio Future while dozing to late night screenings of The Warriors and West Side Story, the film’s influences are consumed by its own unique madness. One scene features a mute sidekick unlocking a prison door by breakdancing and another scene explores Nkoi’s propensity to turn his slaves into pieces of furniture. There’s no consistency here—in the filmmaking or the storyworld—but that’s also what makes it so strangely fascinating. Every scene plays like a new fantasy conjured by a man freestyling while high on PCP.

This is a visually rough film—both aesthetically and artistically. Like the rapping it features, it favours gusto and emotion over polish. For instance, Sono favours extended crane shots that fly over alleyways and dip into the action, allowing many moments to play out uninterrupted. The fact that the camera is often showing opposing angles within a single shot (and that the film was shot so quickly) means the lighting is inconsistent. J.J. Abrams might add lens flares into his films as an aesthetic choice, but here, Shion Sono can’t avoid them. The fact that he features a character in samurai armour made up like a disco ball, the refractive surfaces blinding the lens, shows that Sono doesn’t care.

He doesn’t care about a lot things here, least of all the music. The cast can’t sing, or if they can, Sono never forces them to demonstrate that fact. But it doesn’t matter. The musical numbers and fight scenes, the colourful visuals and the high concept world of the film—they’re all just opportunities to showcase Sono’s deranged mind.

Tokyo Tribe is an act of wild creativity. It’s dumb and ugly and offensively crude, but it’s never boring, even though it exhausts you. It contains a measure of artistic inspiration rarely found in films of its sort.

6 out of 10

Tokyo Tribe (2014, Japan)

Directed by Shion Sono; written by Shion Sono based on the manga by Santa Inoue; starring Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais, Nana Seino, Riki Takecuchi, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shota Sometani.