'Tokyo Tribe' ('Tokyo toraibu'): Toronto Review

Courtesy of Tokyo Tribe Film Partners
In-your-face, over-the-top gangsta-rap tribute peters out over a thin, sentimental premise.

Maverick Sion Sono subverts Japan's gangster genre with an all-rapping, all-fighting hip-hop musical.

After last's year homage to exploitation action-flicks that is Why Don't You Play in Hell?, Japanese enfant terrible Sion Sono continues his over-the-top tribute to street-wise counterculture with the hip-hop celebrating Tokyo Tribe. Just as his previous film ups the gory violence of its templates -- Kill Bill, say, Game of Death -- to the n-th degree, Sono's latest outing would have the moral brigades and gangsta-rap aficionados all perked up (for different reasons, of course) with language and imagery oozing chauvinist braggadocio at every turn.

While Sono has again pushed his outing to its aesthetical limits by having nearly all his characters rapping their lines -- a feat made easier by the recruitment of top-notch hip-hop troupe BCDMG in writing the music, and also Japan's most cutting-edge rappers to perform them in major on-screen roles -- Tokyo Tribe is a spectacle more in its form than its content. The technique is certainly bamboozling and the visual impact is initially powerful -- the one-take shots, the dexterous action scenes performed by its non-actioner stars -- but Sono is, to quote the title of his films, guilty of romance here. Tokyo Tribe is more akin to a mix of West Side Story and Boyz n the Hood -- the sentimentality obscured by its pretensions to Death Row-era Snoop Dogg-style transgressions.

Still, Sono's cult-auteur status in the festival circuit would probably be enhanced further with this in-your-face, larger-than-life piece of meta-cinema -- Tokyo Tribe is the stand-out title in Toronto's midnight madness sidebar, the very same section in which Why Don't You Play in Hell? won a People's Choice award last year. The next stop for the film will be Busan and London, with the former slating it in a Window on Asian Cinema slot while the latter plunking it into its Cult section.

Guided by the flowing verses of an on-screen narrator (Shota Sometani, a Sono alumnus also in the Toronto title Kabukicho Love Hotel),the film begins with a long depiction of the filth and fury permeating an imagined dystopic Tokyo (" A shaking city that never closes its eyes") wrought under by 23 gangs (or "tribes", as they want to be known as).  Commotion ensues, and Sono's penchant for bare-flesh mischief is evident when a thug tears open a policewoman's shirt to sketch a map of Tokyo gangland on her bare torso.

But speaking volumes for all this is the one scene which kick-starts all this: sitting on a fence, the teenage Yon (Kikoto Sakaguchi) pledges over a burning firework that he will "bring hope and joy to the city when I grow up." It's a positivity which burns bright even at the film's darkest hours, as the young girl soon runs off and becomes the beacon of light and righteousness throughout the film's 12-hour time framed narrative. Stripped to its essence, the plot revolves around a last-stand confrontation between the comically sadist overlord Bubba (Riki Takeuchi) and his muscular-monster lieutenant Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) against all the other clans in the city -- with their main enemy being Tera (Ryuta Sato) and Kai (Young Dais), leaders of the only crew in town who preaches "peace and love" rather than war and lust.

Inevitably, violence flares and spreads in ever-more-absurd dimensions, the story gets more complicated with the entry of Sunmi (Nana Seino), a perennially short-skirted, high-kicking fighter who also happens to be the daughter of the gangland's high priest. Her presence -- and the death of Tera -- would serve as the lightning rod for the establishment of a united front among all the "tribes" in their fight against Bubba.

Or at least, that's how the story goes: it's a skimpy premise buoyed by a hackneyed sense of human solidarity against a comical villain which wouldn't really stand the test of time if not for Sono's high-octane hip-hop actioner style. While a shout out is warranted for BCDMG's efforts in crafting all the music -- and Young Dais for supervising the English translation for all the lyrics, all dusted up in rhyme in the subtitles -- the novelty factor fades midway through, and not even the bizarre sight of a (computer-generated) tank rolling down the streets and bombing buildings could really sustain or amplify the flagging energy of it all.

It's perhaps ironic that the better, more intriguing effort from Sono about gangland confrontation is actually Bad Film, a no-budget, sprawling 166-minute piece he finally conjured from the 500-plus-hour footage he shot (with his then theatrical troupe Tokyo Gagaga and hundreds of non-professionals) in 1995. Tokyo Tribe is of course much more bling-fueled (chandeliers hanging out of cars) and boasts of more knowing nods to hip-hop culture (a clan chieftain's shogun-headgear could have been a nod to the masks worn by the off-mainstream Ramellzzee or MF Doom), but it offers more pomp and fantasy than a genuine surprise.

Production companies: Django Film, From First Production Co., Nikkatsu Corporation

Cast: Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais, Shota Sometani, Nana Seino

Director: Sion Sono

Screenwriter: Sion Sono, based on the manga "Tokyo Tribe2" by Santa Inoue

Producers: Yoshinori Chiba, Nobuhiro Iizuka

Executive producer: Kinya Oguchi, Tadashi Tanaka

Director of photography: Daisuke Soma

Production designer: Yuji Hayashida

Costume designer: Chieko Matsumoto

Editor: Junichi Ito

Music: BCDMG

Sales: XYZ Films (US), Nikkatsu Corporation (International)

In Japanese

No rating; 116 minutes

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