Let’s see if I can accurately sum up Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe in one short paragraph…
Offensive self-referential Japanese exploitation movie, featuring creative dialogue communicated almost entirely through rap verse with fairly decent rhythm, alongside entertaining action sequences. Set in dystopian Tokyo where different tribes rule the streets, this is what Mad Max might have been if it was made by Asians on a relatively low budget, based on some obscure manga and had frequent sex references.
Managing to keep up? This is a movie in which you’ll have to get used to such pacing, while letting go of your need to know what’s going on all the time. To try and recap the story here would, I feel, be a futile exercise, as even the film itself considers plot a second thought in the face of stylish presentation. Thankfully that presentation is unique enough (if not always as slick as it could be) to make Tokyo Tribe more than worth your time as an intriguing piece of filmmaking, unlike anything else I’ve seen outside Japan.
Inside Japan it’s a bit of a different story. This film belongs alongside Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and Higuchinsky’s Uzumaki (2000) in terms of its outlandish premise and ambition, though whether it matches those movies for overall quality is highly doubtful. Miike’s film also had musical numbers, and arguably better fleshed-out characters to go with them. Here, it is harder to truly ‘connect’ with what’s going on onscreen.
Tokyo Tribe comes across very much as a lowbrow exploitation movie, which at times threatens to cross over into pornographic and at other times basks in gratuitous violence. It must be said though that this is all surface-level; there really isn’t anything too offensive here. What will be perceived as crossing the line for some, simply comes with the territory for this kind of film. Crude sexual suggestions (that’s all they are – nothing overtly explicit is shown), over-the-top violence and the occasional exposed body part are all present but not obsessed over. Nonetheless, it does go without saying that those easily offended will find themselves uncomfortable with much of it.
The frequent rapping of dialogue is (of course) the film’s biggest curiosity and its standout attribute. This helps create a style of cinematic storytelling that you won’t have seen before. By any serious mainstream standards, the musical quality is merely adequate at best, though casual observers will find it catchy and (for the most part) nicely paced. One suspects artistic integrity isn’t exactly what director Sion Sono was going for regardless.
Special effects are used sparingly, for good reason – they are mostly terrible. When CGI is used in one particular sequence featuring a tank, it looks cheap to the point where you wouldn’t have been surprised to see it pop up in an average student film. Yet I do not wish to judge Tokyo Tribe too harshly on this aspect; I feel it adds to a ludicrous overall experience rather than take away from it. Adding further to this are some very physical, exaggerated acting performances that contribute to the distinct ‘character’ of the film.
This movie almost makes you feel guilty for focusing on the negatives; count them if you wish, but one risks missing the entertaining elements otherwise on offer. Ultimately the film just wants to have fun, and if you brush off its flaws (some of them admittedly glaring), you’ll have no problem allowing yourself to go along with it.
Earlier this year I claimed Inherent Vice was probably best viewed when drunk, or otherwise ‘high’ on some sort of substance (not that I condone such a thing). Tokyo Tribe is exactly like that, only considerably more ‘manic’. Watch it in the early hours of the morning with like-minded friends if you get the opportunity – that will go some way to glossing over its flaws, and as a result, I guarantee this will be one of your most memorable viewing experiences of the year.
7 / 10