Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2015

Tokyo Tribe

Battle-rap of the bulge

Sion Sono turns hip-hop and gang wars into opera in the exhausting, thrillingly alive 'Tokyo Tribe'

Tokyo Tribe
XYZ Films
Director: Sion Sono
Screenplay: Sion Sono, based on the manga by Santa Inoue
Starring: Young Dais, Ryôhei Suzuki, Nana Seino, Shunsuke Daitô, Yôsuke Kubozuka and Riki Takeuchi
Rated R / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe is such a madhouse composite of genres, tones, colors, attitudes and influences, it simply cannot resist even the most tired critical device. So here goes: If The Warriors, Moulin Rouge!, A Clockwork Orange, Chi-Raq, Big Trouble in Little China, Hook, Mortal Kombat, Mad Max: Fury Road and every hip-hop music video ever made were all thrown into a blender, this is the movie that might come out.

That is simultaneously just as awesome as it sounds (in parts) and just as unruly as it sounds. It is a gaudy, glorious, erratic hodgepodge of an experiment, with enough energy to fill a dozen movies. I mean, it kind of is a dozen movies, consolidated into a two-hour behemoth, its camera restlessly racing to keep up with a world overflowing with competing characters and motifs, its wide-angle lenses stretching to capture it in all its distorted madness. To describe this movie more directly, as a futuristic gangster kung-fu hip-hop musical, would be doing it a disservice.

Just when it seems Tokyo Tribe has tried everything a movie can possibly try, suddenly its two alpha-male adversaries start literally arguing about the sizes of their dicks. Yes, really. This is Sono's kitchen-sink approach at its highest pitch. The measuring-contest metaphor is always implicit in tough-guy fairy tales and gangland epics, but here the filmmaker does away with all subtextual pretense and just gets right down to it. One character angrily postulates that his adversary's toughness and irrepressibility must necessarily mean he's well-endowed; when that turns out to be exactly the case, he becomes extremely jealous and borderline emasculated. The overtness of it - which reminded me of Seth Rogen's explanation for why he enjoyed carrying a gun in Superbad - converts it from old-hat metaphor to grand absurdity, in the process transforming its posturing masculine archetypes into the butt of the joke.

The film puts no thought into the by-now-standard discussion of how (or whether) movies like this - with worlds populated by strutting, hyper-masculine heroes and half-naked sex objects - romanticize their characters' lifestyles, or embrace the misogyny inherent in narratives usually filled with sex slaves and prostitutes (or, in this case, topless cops). And it's because Sono treats the whole thing as an elaborate, operatic farce. It has the content level of something close to the extreme end of the exploitation-movie scale, but the sensibility of a Saturday-morning cartoon. Which is ultimately what this is: a live-action cartoon about turf wars, featuring dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, revenge, virgin sacrifice, and yes, dick-measuring. The psychopaths and hooligans of this world aren't satisfied just to embrace this lifestyle - they want to regale us with their exploits in song. Tokyo Tribe makes playfully, yet obscenely explicit all the things its gangster-musical predecessors (West Side Story, Grease, etc) politely sanitize. There's a thrill in its disreputability.

Sono explores this comic-book fantasia as indulgently as possible, but in a way that's strangely light on its feet. It's so fluid in its movement from place to place, character to character, that the whole thing almost feels like one long shot. The hip-hop coursing through the narrative follows suit - it's basically one long, continuous track, one character kicking it to the next, and to the next. We weave through the neighborhoods of every individual gang (and there are plenty of them), in and out of plots, and the song, essentially, remains the same. The voices just change, from Iwao (Shunsuke Daitô) - a mostly passive observer and de-factor Greek chorus, in a movie that doesn't necessarily need one, considering the way each character bears witness to all the rest - to the biggest of the film's big bads, Boss Buppa (Riki Takeuchi, a silly mobster caricature with jet-black ice-cream-cone hair, a perpetually curled lip and a shimmering gold suit, looking like a gangland Elvis impersonator), to his sadistic, pansexual son Nkoi (Yôsuke Kubozuka), to the young woman Sunmi (Nana Seino) that father and son have captured without realizing she is, somehow, the mystical key to the entire power structure of this candy-colored futuristic Tokyo.

And lest we forget, Buppa's most bloodthirsty henchman, Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki) - bleached hair, bronzed skin, golden guns - and the unassuming Kai (Young Dais), who will become his nemesis as the long-gestating gang war snowballs into the streets, with every gang in town - each of which gets a dramatic introduction during the film's lengthy opening sequence - in it for keeps.

The film's excessive audacity is one of its hallmarks, but it's also the reason why an hour and 56 minutes is quite enough of it. Sono somehow has too much world to explore and takes just enough time to make sure it becomes a living, breathing place - one we might not completely be able to make sense of, but won't soon forget. Despite all the styles it draws from and all the comparisons I already used, still Tokyo Tribe is nothing if not its own (messy, overstuffed, outrageous, impossible) animal. I'm so happy a movie like this exists.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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