You will see nothing like Tokyo Tribe this year. But that’s not surprising considering it’s the long-awaited adaptation of Santa Inoue’s hugely popular manga Tokyo Tribe2, and the latest feature from gifted Japanese director Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Cold Fish).
It’s a mind-blowing project: a cast of hundreds, selected from open auditions on YouTube (along with leading names in Japanese hip hop), takes part in an epic action battle film set in the gang landscape of alternate Tokyo, with most of the dialogue performed in rap. Tall order, but it totally works. Sono pushes the idea to its extreme, revelling in every opportunity to flaunt the innate self-expression of different types of music.
Tokyo Tribe boasts outstandingly impressive art direction from Yuji Hiyashida, the man who brought us the “death village” in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Each part of the city boasts its own distinct colour palate, rap-style, costuming, set design, everything. The peace loving members of the Musashino Saru hang out in a faux 50’s diner whilst the sadistic Buppa and Merra (superb turns from Ryohei Suzuki and Richi Takeuchi) take up residence in a nightmarish farce of roman opulence. Pop culture referencing and bold, ballsy cultural caricatures make the film so vibrant it really seems crammed into the screen. It’s a stunning spectacle and a frankly gobsmacking dedication to the source material and Sono’s vision.
Tokyo Tribe is a street film, a kind of mockumentary set in a dystopian Tokyo that’s gone the way of The Warriors. Sono successfully captures the energy of a demented music video; multi-artist dialogue-rap performed through Sono’s trademark longshots. Bottle beating and face-slapping make hypnotic baselines for combat sequences, whilst explosions and earthquakes punctuate with a nice sense of motion. Overall there’s some great action in Tokyo Tribe; the product of the wire work is so enjoyable, and the film so fantastical, that any lazy choreography can be dismissed. A dodgy CGI tank, disco samurai, the strongest man in the world, and a massive death fan are wonderful details in a truly unique film.
But those details are frivolous enjoyment, really. Through the story and sound Sono (and Inoue) highlight the separate cultures of violence and music, whilst speaking about the people who try to mix them. It’s a really sincere and studied celebration of something often side-lined and scapegoated.
An unbelievably gleeful piece of cinema from one of Japan’s finest filmmakers, Tokyo Tribe is a joyous celebration of Yakuza action films and rap extravagance. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else.