Director: Sion Sono
Cast: Young Dais, Ryôhei Suzuki, Riki Takeuchi
Watch Tokyo Tribe online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video
From the ever-prolific cult Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono comes Tokyo Tribe, an anarchic hip-hop musical about gang warfare that may be the director’s most unhinged film yet. And that’s saying something, considering the man’s made at least one four-hour movie about an upskirt photographer.
Like many a vibrant, bonkers genre film to come out of Japan of late, Tokyo Tribe is unsurprisingly based on a popular manga series, but this adaptation has a dash of touchstones in the worlds of cinema and video games. Whether intentional or not, to many a Western viewer, the film can come across as a delirious hybrid of all these disparate media influences from across the world. Considering just how weird Tokyo Tribe tends to get, going heavy on discussion of those potential touchstones is perhaps the best way to convey a sense of the tone and aesthetic.
The first cinematic influence may be the most surprising, but you can definitely make the connection: Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. That film, starring Catherine Deneuve, is best known for being a film musical made up not necessarily of songs, but rather entirely sung dialogue. There’s virtually no dialogue in that film that’s not delivered to some sort of tune. In Tokyo Tribe, about 85 to 90 per cent of the dialogue is sung or grunted to some kind of hip-hop beat. And while his outfits are hardly as pretty as those of Demy’s film, Sono has a proclivity for dressing his film up in a similarly candy-coloured palette.
Asian film-wise, there’s obviously the shared maniacal energy of some of Sono’s own other films, but also various Yakuza movies – Riki Takeuchi, best known in the West for Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive gangster trilogy, plays one of the film’s major antagonists. On the English-language side of things, Walter Hill’s The Warriors, similarly set during one long night in which gangland factions come to a head, is an obvious reference point, but there’s also a touch of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York in the subplots involving isolated characters navigating their way through enemy terrain on a rescue mission. And when it comes to the fisticuffs of the grand brawls, which are never made not to look like something straight off a comic book page, there’s a similar fluidity to that found in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, as well as somewhat similar fight choreography. Like Wright, Sono has a penchant for long takes incorporating an oft-staggering amount of detail in the background, where you can just as easily watch another fight scene in the corner of the frame that’s happening at the same time as the one in the centre.
There are two Sega video games that also spring to mind: Streets of Rage and Jet Set Radio. The latter is perhaps the most relevant influence on Tokyo Tribe’s look and feel, despite being comparatively lesser-known. Jet Set Radio and sequel Jet Set Radio Future follow gangs of youths who roam the streets of a futuristic Tokyo, evading the authorities and leaving the mark of their comrades in the territories they intrude upon. In Jet Set Radio, the mark left is graffiti, while in Tokyo Tribe it’s the various battle raps or acts of violence that trigger plot events. But hip-hop infuses both of them (the games are scored by wall-to-wall music from the genre), and both see wackily-dressed misfits from all sorts of Tokyo zones gradually come together to overcome a bigger enemy, to achieve peace. As a chant in the film goes: “Tokyo Tribe, never ever die.”
But for all this discussion of the nuances of the phantasmagorical world it depicts, is Tokyo Tribe actually any fun to watch? Well, yes, but with a necessary disclaimer: for those able and willing to fully embrace two hours of Sono’s maximalist tendencies, which can be exhausting at times, his hysterical hybrid is unlike much else in live-action cinema. One key factor, however: there are a few too many instances, depicted or implied, of sexual violence aimed at women, including one in the opening few minutes. While the film is largely concerned with more cartoonish brutality, these occasional moments have a particularly uncomfortable edge to them that can’t necessarily be overpowered by the sight of an elderly woman spinning records while cursing and telling everyone “All y’all better shake in fear”.
Tokyo Tribe is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
Where can I watch Tokyo Tribe on pay-per-view VOD?