Foreign-language filmmaker Leos Carax once stated, ‘Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language … But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life.’ This quotation is especially relevant to Tokyo Tribe, as director Sion Sono takes us on a journey far into a very otherworldly territory of cinema.
Imagine a fantastic set-piece consisting of a neon-lit market street in night-time rainy Tokyo, occupied by hundreds of wanderers: party-goers, high-schoolers, hookers & pimps, gangsters and… a DJ grandma ‘bringing slammin’ beats from the ass-end of hell’. Now imagine a film that is made entirely of such set-pieces, with dialogue spoken uniquely in rap-verse. The ever-subversive Sion Sono, who won the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival with his crazed love letter to cinema Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, now presents the world’s first battle rap musical. Even Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void‘s Tokyo looks tame in comparison to this explosive, highly entertaining affair.
In a dystopian Tokyo, the city is divided into 23 tribes, such as Shibuya Saru, Musashino Saru, Shinjuku Hands, Kabukicho GiraGira Girls, Bukuro Wu-Ronz and of course the Nerimuthafuckaz, each having different preferences with regards fashion and hip hop paraphernalia, every one of them more ridiculous than the other and all fuelled by their love for the art of rap.
Cannibalistic villain Lord Buppa (so hammy it hurts Riki Takeuchi) and his ‘sons’ – blonde lieutenant Mera (Suzuki) and creepy Nkoi (Kubozuka) – keep instigating wars between the tribes, plotting to overtake the city in the near future. Enter Buppa’s henchmen with a group of abducted women, among them the film’s heroine Sunmi (Seino), soon to be turned either into food or prostitute. Sunmi turns out to be a masterful fighter and sparks interest in Mera and Nkoi’s evil schemes.
For hilarious personal reasons, Mera has a grudge against Kim (Young Dais) aka leader of Musashino, and uses spies and Sunmi as bait to lure him into his whorehouse Saga. When Kim and co. wander into Wu-Ronz territory, tension escalates into a frenzy, packed with blistering fight choreography, rap battles, human furniture, tanks, a sadistic dwarf, flying kickboxers, gatling guns, severed fingers in cigar boxes…
The film is constructed from a myriad of references ranging from the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick), Escape from New York (Carpenter), The Warriors (Hill), the finale of Scarface (De Palma), Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Terayama) and the gang musicality of West Side Story (Wise & Robbins). It features a cast of actual performers, rappers and stuntmen, accompanied by old school beats with lyrics and delivery of varying but always entertaining quality. The technical aspects are solid, with free-wheeling long takes, soundstage sets, candy-coloured cinematography and great street life choreography.
What strikes me the most in this ingenious film is how Sono creates a pastiche of a world, an outrageous farce of a film that is largely made out of our most exaggerated preconceptions of Japan, today’s hip-hop and gang culture. For the West, the concept of Japan revolves around the dichotomy of what their society is unafraid to show in the media and the chastity still felt from their traditional culture. Here, Sono, shines a mirror on us and gives us a gleefully self-referential and tongue-in-cheek example of the Japanese exploitation genre.
– Tokyo Tribe will be released in cinemas and on DVD and Blu-ray early 2015.