• SHARE

A Japanese hip-hop musical? How about a samurai swashbuckler set on the streets of Compton, California? But Sion Sono makes his new film, “Tokyo Tribe,” more than an oddity of cultural appropriation. Truth be told, I felt queasy as the story, based on a manga by Santa Inoue, began to unfold in a crime-ridden near-future Tokyo, with the “tribes” (gangs) of the title ruling the streets as the cops complicitly look on. Was this, I wondered, Sono’s twisted idea of a rap paradise? Was he grossly stereotyping or was he not?

Before pronouncing Sono guilty (a verdict this career-long violator of taboos, PC or otherwise, would probably shrug off), please note that the film’s music is mostly supplied by BCDMG (Big Crow Dog Music Group), a collective of Japanese rappers. (Beethoven’s Fifth is one prominent exception to the rule.) The film also stars pro rapper Young Dais (real name Daisaku Shimada) who plays the leader of the Musashino Saru tribe, which would rather make love than gang war.

My knowledge of rap history is slender, but even this troglodyte baby boomer is aware that rap has long since become an international musical language, much like Sono’s beloved Western classics. Also, from the evidence on the screen, Sono’s cast, non-rappers included, have thoroughly assimilated the whole hip-hop thing, from their stylishly coordinated street looks to their easy fluency with the nonstop lyrics. The film is less a goofy parody than a smartly, madly staged rap celebration.

Tokyo Tribe
Rating
Director Sion Sono
Run Time 116 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Aug. 30

Our rapper host, the hoodie-wearing MC Show (Shota Sometani), saunters through Bukuro (Ikebukuro), Shinjuku, Shibuya and Nerima while slyly commenting on their native tribes — think Joel Grey’s supremely jaded club emcee in “Cabaret.” And the various gang fights, choreographed to the last kick and punch, reminded me of “West Side Story.” That is, “Tokyo Tribe” is more tongue-in-cheek Broadway than straight-from-the-street rap movie, though Sono inserts his own brand of ero-guro (eroticism and grotesquery).

It’s pure entertainment, folks. I’m sure “Tokyo Tribe” will wow the crowd at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, where it will open the Midnight Madness section

The story is manically busy, with a large cast of characters, but it comes down to that old staple: gang war for turf supremacy, as well as the usual bragging rights. On one side is Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), the blond-haired, hard-muscled leader of the Wu-Ronz tribe in Bukuro, who sells drugs openly from the back of a mini-van and molests a curvy female cop who tries to stop him. His boss is Bubba (Riki Takeuchi), a growling, pop-eyed demon incarnate, with a distressing taste for human flesh. Bubba’s spawn, the mincing, menacing Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), prefers his prisoners to serve as pieces of white-painted furniture.

Opposed to this unsavory crew is the aforementioned Musashino Saru leader Kai (Young Dais), whose philosophy of peaceful coexistence is sorely tested when one of his main men is killed in Bukuro, with the Wu-Ronz setting and springing the trap.

There is also Sunmi (Nana Seino), a cool-eyed beauty forced into prostitution by Mera and his crew. She is a kick-ass martial artist, but how can she battle an entire gang? Even with the aid of a boy sidekick (Makoto Sakaguchi) who is a pint-sized fighting whirlwind, the odds are steep.

They improve, though, when Kai and the other tribal leaders decide to jointly take on the Wu-Ronz and their mysterious black-shirted allies, the aptly dubbed Waru (lit. Bad) gang. A battle royale for all of Tokyo is about to begin.

Dozens of Japan’s other punk/biker/gangster movies from the past decade (or is that century?) have arrived at the same denouement. And Sono can be rightly accused of overdoing everything from the candy-colored art direction to the gangsta braggadocio. But he is also a born showman who can distract us from his story’s thinness with everything from fistic furies to linguistic acrobatics. Despite the occasional zone-out from the visual and aural excess, at the end I felt energized, zapped from jolt after jolt of that verbal energy drink called rap, or rather Sono’s highly localized and stylized version of it.

But would I try it myself at the neighborhood karaoke joint, where the “Tokyo Tribe” soundtrack will probably soon be available? Only if I can share the mic, if not the entrees, with Bubba.


Fun fact: In 1995 Sono made “Bad Film,” another movie about near-future gang wars in Tokyo, though the “future” is 1997. Featuring members of Sono’s Gagaga peformance collective and shot on Hi-8 video, “Bad Film” was first publicly screened at the 2012 Kanazawa Film Festival.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)