Sion Sono, what a hero! The man's been on a roll the past couple of years and by the looks of it his quality streak isn't bound to end very soon. Tokyo Tribe is his latest film and may very well be very best thing I've seen from Sono so far. Not that I'm 100% comfortable with the film, but when it comes to putting on a blisteringly fun show, Tokyo Tribe delivers from start to finish, leaving no opportunity untouched to squeeze out some extra gags and laughs.
Tokyo Tribe is Japan's first hip-hop gang action comedy. Quite probably, it's also the first hip-hop gang action comedy ever made (but don't quote me on that). It's a pretty outrageous, insane and otherworldly comedy that exists in a universe of its own, two hours of unashamed escapism with nothing else on its mind besides blatant entertainment. It's good to see Sono (Kimyo na Sakasu, Koi no Tsumi, Love Exposure, Ekusute, Tsumetai Nettaigyo, Himizu) letting off some steam once in a while.
The hip-hop part of the genre description doesn't just refer to the scene and setting, Tokyo Tribe is effectively a musical with the majority of the conversations and voice overs packaged as hip-hop music. Sono strikes a good balance between comedy and quality, with the beats and melodies guiding the film's drive. The lyrics and flow do lack some power and rhythm, which I guess may irk the more hardened hip-hop fans. As a more moderate fan though, I think Sono did a pretty great job.
The film is set up as one big gang fight. The different districts of Tokyo are governed by distinctive hip-hop clans, which are all dragged into an ongoing struggle for power. The Wu-Ronz and Musashino Saru clans are spearheading the conflict as everybody is readying themselves for a big show-off. Things get only more entangled when the daughter of a famed priest suddenly shows up in the middle of Tokyo. Much sense it makes not, but that's entirely besides the point.
Keeping with the hip-hop aesthetic, Sono goes for agile camera work and strong, bright colors. But the lengthy tracking shot at the beginning of the film betrays higher aspirations. The beautiful lighting, detailed sets and sharp editing make for a vibrant and sprawling visual experience, rising high above the average hip-hop music video aesthetic. The CG can be a little shabby at times, but it's always functional and it has an obvious comical side (something not everyone will appreciate).
The soundtrack of Tokyo Tribe is clearly one of its main attractions. It's a 2 hour lasting hip-hop movie score that's simply impossible to ignore as it's put front and center throughout the entire film. The rapping itself leaves a little to be desired (though some of the actors were pretty proficient), but the beats and the songs itself are pretty awesome, setting a terrific mood and adding to the film's excruciating pacing.
Sono worked with a pretty vast cast, all of them clearly appreciating the opportunity to appear in this film. Ryohei Suzuki (mostly known from TV series) and Shota Sometani make particularly notable appearances, but there's truly only one man stealing the show here. Riki Takeuchi may not be a very good actor as he can do little else besides uncontrollably over the top, but give him a role that suits him and he just glues your eyes to the screen. Buppa's character is a perfect match for Takeuchi and he gladly goes overboard to deliver one of his best performances so far.
Tokyo Tribe is pretty much perfect, still I felt a little uncomfortable after the film. Nothing to do with the film itself really, but looking at its distinctive qualities, it felt like Sono was treading on someone else's turf. Just consider the atypical musical concept (Katakuri-ke no Kofuku), the shabby but functional and comic use of CG, the gang setup (Kurozu Zero, the adaptation of a comic book and the zany sense of humor. Hell, even Takeuchi's presence adds to the feeling that you're watching a vintage Takashi Miike film. By themselves these points don't make too much of an impression, but put them together and there's a pretty strong connection with Miike's oeuvre. Not that it's a derivative film, it's just that Sono goes with a kind of unique that you would normally attribute to Miike.
That said, it didn't make the film any less enjoyable, on the contrary even. Tokyo Tribe is a killer ride from beginning to end. It's brutal, outrageous, funny, weird and it has a terrific drive. If you dismiss films that are pure escapist fun you shouldn't even venture near it and hardcore hip-hop fans might be a little disappointed by the not-so-album-like quality of the raps, but everyone else is bound to have a real blast with Sono's latest. It will be difficult for him to top this one.