Lucky little me managed to get to see a press screening this week. Even luckier, it was a chance to see the latest offering from Sion Sono on the big(ish) screen (something I didn’t know before embarking on this amateur journalism lark, screening rooms are not big places). As I have mentioned before, I am a big fan of his work, and this one had come with some big fanfare from some other EasternKicks.com reviewers. So let us go take a visit to Tokyo, or a version of it at least.
“Tokyo Tribe” takes place in some near future dystopian version of the Japanese capital. Law and order have broken down, and each district is run by a street gang, or “Tribe”. There are rumbles and skirmishes, but fundamentally the city is in some kind of equilibrium. In Bukuro, which is basically the red-light district, the power is held by Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his henchmen sons: Merra (Ryohei Suzuki), a muscular sword-swinging narcissist; and Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) who prefers to keep people as furniture. Oh, and they are all sex crazed cannibals. On the other side of the scale we have the Musashino Saru, led by the charismatic Kai (Young Dias). Now Merra has a major beef against Kai, so when Buppa decides to start a full on Tribe war against the other districts, his focus is on wiping out his Nemesis. Oh, and there is a mysterious girl called Sunmi (Nana Seino) who has been captured by Buppa to become either a prostitute or dinner, but she not only can handle herself, but seems to have a far more important back story. When war erupts, who will be victorious?
One more thing. This is a musical. A Japanese Rap musical. Think “Guys and Dolls” meets “8 Mile” meets Takashi Miike.
So, let’s deal with that little bombshell first. I am no fan of musicals at all. And I have no love of rap music. But actually? It works, it really does. Some 80% of the script is delivered in rap, but the kinetic film-making and constant soundtrack mean that after a disorienting opening, you just roll with it. It all makes perfect sense, linking the concepts of those classic youth gang films of the 1950/60’s with the tribalism inherent in Rap music.
Visually, I enjoyed the film too. The big sets are made full use of, the steadicam camera makes sure it explores every nook and cranny. This might be a dystopia, but it is a bright and mixed tableau the film is painted on, and certainly the film is visually exploring the Manga roots of the story. Being a Manga adaptation also brings the usual issues of single dimensional and over the top characters and craziness. But to be honest? In this case that hardly matters. Sit back, enjoy the ride. The music gives the film a constant flow, and whilst it is a touch overlong, I never really got bored, or felt any particular scene made the film flag.
Acting is mixed. Rapping is mixed. The professional actors do their best in both activities, and the professional rappers do what they do. To be fair, once he gets on-screen, Young Dias doesn’t look out-of-place, even though he has never acted before. Extra points are given to him for apparently taking good care over the lyrics, making them make sense in the excellent subtitles (it is helped by the fact Rap does tend to use plenty of English phrases). Nana Seino is also excellent as the mysterious Sunmi, not just looking attractive, but athletically kicking butt too. In lesser roles, Youtuber Cyborg Kaori gave the audience the biggest laughs. My star was Sunmi’s self-appointed body-guard Yon (acrobat/breakdancer Sakaguchi Kikoto), a tomboyish bundle of energy, and whom I suspect is the heart of the original Manga. Shota Sometani has a role as MC/Narrator, but whilst his monotone mumblings are neither here or there, I was more concerned he didn’t really help the film move anywhere.
So it sounds a bit different, but quite fantastic right? Fun and unique. Sounds like my sort of film. And to some degree, yes I loved it. It is a brilliant and original piece of film-making. I would not want all my movies to be like this, but it is realised brilliantly. But I have a couple of major issues with it.
Firstly, the misogyny on display. There’s boobies on display. But I am no prude. I like boobies. And to be fair, Merra certainly is certainly physically objectified. However, nearly all the female characters are either prostitutes or are realised in a sexual manner. This is clear from the opening scene, where an eager policewoman is used to show how lawless this world is. But did she need the sexy outfit, the wet shirt, and then the violent topless bit? The phrase and act of rape are bandied around quite offensively, and yes, I know that’s not uncommon in Japanese cinema, but it still rankled me personally. I get that the misogyny is part of this world that is being shown to us, but maybe it could have been just as powerful if the visuals were toned down just a touch.
Secondly though, there’s a real laziness about the film. Now, this is based on a popular Manga, and my guess is that there is a desire to capture many elements that are popular with fans, ensure certain characters and scenes get some screen time. What this means is we get a load of subplots that honestly never go anywhere, or get any chance to be explained. Some of these are minor – the resolution of that dizzying opening sequence for example, or quite what the story of Yon is. But a huge plot point about the true nature of Sunmi is bought up, explored a little, and honestly goes nowhere. The sibling rivalry between Merra and Nkoi really goes nowhere. Another member of the Buppa Clan is literally introduced late on in the movie, seemingly for a single Yellow Tracksuit joke (and to help with the coda-payoff), but why she wasn’t present in the first 90 minutes of the movie I can’t fathom.
Despite my discomfort with the portrayal of most of the women, and a lack of focus and streamlining of plot elements, I am going to give this Highly Recommended. It is a crazy and fun and unusual film. But it is original, and the general idea is damn well executed. Sion Sono remains the most interesting Japanese director currently plying his trade. This one might not quite have knocked it out of the park, but it deserves credit for having the balls to be different.