Starring: Ryohei Suzuki, Tomoko Karina
Director: Shion Sono
Since making the brilliant Love Exposure, Shion Sono has largely devoted himself to worthy films on weighty topics (Himizu, The Land of Hope). Now, with this comic booky tale of a dystopian Japan told through the medium of rap, he seems to have decided to let his hair down. Or at least braid it into cornrows.
Tokyo Tribe is a sprawling, undisciplined, visually impressive Takashi Miike-Robert Rodriguez-Luc Besson mash-up, and if you love any of those directors that it might be just up your neon-hued, graffiti-daubed alley. It has a huge cast of characters, panoramic scenes of a torrid, rain-slickened urban battlefield and a big fight at the end. There’s a slim plot to do with a mysterious female waif fleeing from assassins and falling into the hands of human traffickers, but it’s drowned in garish, kitsch production design, hyperbolic direction and endless scenes of guys in baggy pants and girls in bikinis mouthing to a thumping hip-hop beat.
Thumping and somewhat monotonous, as the rhyming monologues to camera all seem to bleed into one another, with no distinctive hooks or changes of tempo (and no dance numbers either, which is a shame). The only rapping performance that really stands out is Ryohei Suziki’s in his role as chief heavy Mera, and that’s only because he’s wearing nothing but a posing pouch at the time.
This does, however, point to one of film’s strengths – its cast of gaudy villains. Naked chest oiled under a fluffy fur coat and hair bleached blond, Mera certainly makes quite an impression, but he’s not alone. There’s also a crime kingpin who dresses like Liberace and wields gold-plated Kalashnikovs, and a twisted character who has a room full of naked human furniture in poses reminiscent of the bar tables in Clockwork Orange.
Yes, there are plenty of good ideas among the bad, and if you stick with it, the last forty minutes or so are pretty cracking, with an humongous dust-up and a tank trundling its way into the Shibuya shopping district. And it’s a film you want to like, simply because it is so mad. All the same, you expect better from a director like Shion Sono. The film revels in the violent and sexist clichés of rap, and then tries to ward off criticism by encouraging all the little gangsters out there to “tell your homies that life is dope”. Anyone? Yeah, didn’t think so. Still, if you like your movies loud, bright and crazy, Tokyo Tribe is well worth and look, and maybe now Shion Sono has gotten all of that out of his system, he’ll make another masterpiece like Love Exposure.