James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
James: Wow. WTF was that?
Semaj: A Japanese rap musical. Duh.
James: I’ve never seen a rap musical before, let alone a Japanese one.
Semaj: You’ve totally seen a rap musical: that Broadway play “Hamilton,” about Alexander Hamilton.
James: Yeah, you’re right. By the way, why is Alexander Hamilton the subject of a rap musical?
Semaj: I guess because he was born out of wedlock, was self-educated, and was big on a strong central government. Everything we love about liberal underdogs?
James: And he was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel.
Semaj: Very good. You saw that “Got Milk?” commercial.
James: Sorry for the digression. Maybe there are rap musicals on Broadway, but I’ve never seen a rap musical film before.
Semaj: “Straight Outta Compton,” “8 Mile,” “Hustle and Flow,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”…
James: Those are movies about rap, not rap musicals. They’re all about guys trying to break into the rap game. In “Tokyo Tribe,” they just rap all the time. They rap more than they talk. It’s like a contemporary “West Side Story”: Here are a bunch of martial arts gangs in Tokyo that rap to express what they’re feeling, rather than discussing it.
Semaj: So it’s the first Japanese martial arts rap musical that we’ve seen.
James: How crazy is that? Is that like a thing over there? To have movies where they rap and fight the whole time? Or is this movie just as wild and crazy to the people in Japan as it is to us?
Semaj: I have no idea. It’s based on a manga comic, and those can be pretty wild.
James: But I doubt they rap the whole time in the manga version. You can’t have music in a comic book.
Semaj: The director, Sion Sono must have come up with the rap musical idea.
James: It’s kind of funny at first because you have all these Japanese guys acting like American gangster rappers, except that they’re rapping in Japanese and talking about the different warring tribes in various districts of Tokyo. There’s a tribe with a guy in a samurai outfit, there’s an all female tribe, there’s one that looks Latino (even though they’re Japanese), and there’s the ultra-bad tribe with a big boss who’s a pimp and murderer, whose underlings keep slaves to act as furniture that they sit on, and kidnap women off the streets to turn into prostitutes.
Semaj: In short, it’s a fucked-up portrait of modern day Tokyo.
James: Well, it’s a heightened manga version of Tokyo: Post-modern, flashy, chaotic, ugly, and full of boobs and bling. Sort of like “Spring Breakers.”
Semaj: Right. “Spring Breakers” was very much about surfaces, like a package of Skittles. In some ways, that’s how we live now, in an existential playground where we all digitally create our own characters — where digital murder is not far from actual murder.
James: Whoa. How did you make that leap to murder?
Semaj: I don’t know. These movies have a lot of murder in them. But they’re so fantastical that the murders don’t read as murders. They’re like cartoon murders.
James: Or manga murders.
Semaj: Or video game murders. You can kill a thousand people in a video game and not feel anything.
James: Or zombies. They blow people’s heads off in “The Walking Dead” all the time, but it’s okay because they’re not human.
Semaj: But show a little dick and it’s trouble city.
James: Right. We can show intestines coming out of cut open stomachs, but not sex.
Semaj: They just showed some dick on the new season of “The Affair.”
James: Well, that’s on Showtime. They’re trying to compete with HBO for those explicit “pay cable moments.”
Semaj: There aren’t any dick shots in “Tokyo Tribe,” but they talk about dick size a whole bunch. There’s a huge black guy who kicks the shit out of everyone who gets in his way, but when his pants fall down in the middle of a fight, the Asian guys laugh because his dick is smaller than theirs.
James: What the hell is that about?
Semaj: I guess it’s turning stereotypes on their heads.
James: Yeah, but there’s a whole run during the end credits — spoiler alert! — where they talk about needing a big dick to be the head of all the tribes.
Semaj: I guess it’s supposed to be ironic. I don’t know.
James: So what’s this movie about?
Semaj: I think it’s about being young. About trying to survive in a world that has been fucked up by the older generations. The tribes are groups of youth who have created makeshift families, and trained themselves in self-defense because the world they’ve inherited is corrupt and loveless.
James: That’s a good reading. I guess that’s how gangs start in general. They arise when the establishment has left a social group behind, like African Americans in South Central in the eighties and nineties.
Semaj: But is that what’s going on with the youth in Japan? I thought Japan was wealthy.
James: Right, but the girls in “Spring Breakers” weren’t disenfranchised, they were just bored. Not only were they privileged, they were characters played by Disney stars, so that the characters within the film played as pop princesses gone bad. That’s where some of the power of the movie came from.
Semaj: “Tokyo Tribe” is a little like that. It mashes everything up in a youth soup of insane expression. The rapping and martial arts are youthful expressions of rebellion.
James: Some of the women in this movie get screwed over. Held down and poked with knives by lecherous men.
Semaj: Yeah, but there are also some badass female martial artists who kick ass by the thousands.
James: Do you think that balances things out?
Semaj: I don’t know. This movie is all over the place.
James: It’s more like analyzing a music video than a movie.
Semaj: Well, that’s cool, too.