Toronto Review: Japanese Hip Hop Tale ‘Tokyo Tribe’ is a Wild Ride

Toronto Review: Japanese Hip Hop Tale 'Tokyo Tribe' is a Wild Ride
Toronto Review: Japanese Hip Hop Tale 'Tokyo Tribe' is Wild Ride

Putting the mad in Midnight Madness, Sion Sono’s “Tokyo Tribe” is a furiously paced, neon-paletted East Side Story/hip-hopera that should cement Sono’s reputation as an alchemist of anarchy and a crazy-ass choreographer. (He returned to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival a year after winning an audience award for “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”).

Propelled via elaborate tracking shots – the one that opens the film is several minutes long and swoops and soars – it is set among the warring factions in the various districts of Tokyo, whose members dance, flip, kick, punch, perpetrate violence on an epic level and imply sexual peril on a porn-ish scale. It also avails itself of every manner of Japanese cinematic signifier, including yakuza, samurai, manga-inspired punks and a villain who suggests a combination of Asian Elvis and Donald Trump.  

Sono apparently cast the film with real-life tattoo artists, rappers, dancers and Riki Takeuchi — whose evil Buppa is the big kahuna of Tokyo crime, a debauched, diseased sadist who rules over the varying fiefdoms with an iron hand. Sono executes everything on sets crowded with street kids, hookers, homeless, the demented and the strange, against backdrops that range from chaotic pastel slums to the executive suites of tribal gangsters, to the private salons of Buppa’s son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), where near-naked slaves are used as furniture. Sono may have based his film on Santa Inoue’s manga, but Pasolini’s “Salo” is never very far away.

Bubba and his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) declare war on all other “tribes” in the city, their prime target being the Musashino Saru, the city’s one peace-and-love-professing contingent led by Tera (Ryuta Sato) and Kai (Young Dais). The situation is accelerated by the story’s main heroine, Sunmi (Nana Seino), a mistress of the martial arts and offhandedness seductress against for whom there seems a perpetual threat of rape. That fits with the rest of the film’s sexual politics: When Mera tortures, at knifepoint, a topless female cop, she writhes orgasmically. Similarly, the boys of Musashino profess love and peace but deny that their beneficent philosophy extends to “kissing dudes.” It’s all a bit uncomfortably regressive, and sadly typical of the western-based hip-hop culture that permeates the film.

But of course Sono – whose screenplay is enhanced by the music of hip-hop troupe BCDMG (most of the story is rapped) — refuses to let anything be taken too seriously within the antic, artificial confines of “Tokyo Tribe,” a fish tank of frenetic action, a bubble of balletic belligerence.

Grade: B

“Tokyo Tribe” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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