According to an octogenarian emcee as she lays down some beats on a neon-drenched intersection of sprawling graffiti-laden alleyways, Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (2014) is “comin’ at ya from the ass-end of hell.” The Japanese gonzo director prefers his dials turned up to eleven and that’s most certainly the intention with this, a dystopian gangland bubblegum hip-hopera in which there’s mayhem on the streets and almost every word is rapped. Hurling a million and one things at the screen at all times, it’s both an adrenaline shot and an exhausting experience. It’s also eye-popping, loud and riotous fun. A fresh-faced narrator (Shôta Sometani) stalks through this grimy warren to outline the evening’s entertainment.
Sono’s Neo-Tokyo is carved up amongst a whole host of vicious street gangs, the territories of whom are fortunately illustrated on the naked torso of a policewoman by a bleach-blonde knife-wielding thug, Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki, pictured right). Apparently, across the proceeding twelve hours, lines will be crossed and gore will be splattered – ideally by the bucketload – and while the perpetrator spouts rhyming couplets. The bloodlust of Mera’s boss, the grotesque warlord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), appears to be the catalyst while all of the other gangs will be itching to retaliate – all but the narrator’s own, who preach peace, love and empathy. Throw in a couple of mysterious adolescent runaways with bitching martial arts skills and the stage is set for one hell of a show. Naturally, that’s precisely what Sono delivers in some style.
Daisuke Soma’s camera tracks spectacularly down punk’d-out streets as bling’d-up cars with chandeliers in place of wing mirrors traverse them. Although some of the gangs lack distinction, inventive characters make an instant impression – not least Buppa’s weasely son, who forces prisoners to become his personal furniture. The rapping is also impressive, with never-ending beats accompanied by witty lyrics that are admirably translated into equally rhythmic English subtitles. They don’t even cease – though they do decrease – when the climactic rumble begins and Sono flexes his imaginative action muscles with aplomb. The presentation of women is a tricky issue for a film that on one hand seems to send up the misogyny of hip-hop culture and with the other venerates it. Sono doesn’t avert his camera from scantily clad women, often lingering on derrières and including one too many panty shots of the otherwise empowered Nana Seino. However, he does hilariously boil down masculine aggression to a very literal male insecurity. There’s a wider message of positivity and cooperation to be taken but it’s undoubtedly the sheer bravura of it all that will make Tokyo Tribe a deserved cult hit.
This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson