Fantastic Fest Review: 'Tokyo Tribe' is Cult Japanese Hip Hop Insanity
by Alex Billington
September 21, 2014
"Tokyo Tribe, never ever die!" Oh my goodness, this movie is totally insane, wacky, absurd and terrible in every way, but so so so awesome. Do you remember those kind of crazy cult films you'd find in the back of a video store, only one copy on VHS, that you'd lose your shit over discovering and would have to tell your friends about and the next thing you'd know the entire high school would be into this crazy film. Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe is one of those films, the kind that is really bad in every way, but also insanely awesome in every way. Love it, hate it, it's a can't-believe-this-is-real experience that feels a bit like The Warriors meets You Got Served, even though it's really unlike anything else. Holy sh*t I love this movie, even as bad as it is.
So what the hell is Tokyo Tribe and why is it so awesome? The latest feature from Sion Sono (Heya: The Room, Love Exposure, Cold Fish, Why Don't You Play in Hell?) this film is a low-grade hip hop musical set in an alternate, trashy Tokyo, Japan where various gangs called "tribes" are at war with each other. The city is in some kind of wild, let's-all-rap-about chaos divided amongst some very vague neighborhoods. Some of the absurd characters include a grandma laying down the beats as the neighborhood DJ and a totally wacky boss of the city named Big Buppa, who seems pulled from the futuristic universe of Idiocracy. But it's a few of the kids, and some girl who fights back and kicks ass, that are driving the story set over the course of one night - think The Warriors (the New York City classic) remixed with Japanese hip hop, something like that.
The film is beyond edgy, filled with an abundance of misogyny and mistreatment of women not to mention excessive violence and foul language galore (one of the main set pieces is the phrase "Fuck Da World") in the midst of rival gangs hating on each other. Women are topless throughout, used as set pieces, thrown about, and it can often be too much. That said, I didn't find this overly distracting within the context of the world within the film, and the balls out insanity that Sono packs in here. It's so easy to tell it takes place on giant, poorly lit sets dressed up with trash to make it look, well, trashy - but these are all the reasons why I love it. It's the kind of thing that is just so terrible, so repulsive, but so much ridiculous fun that it's actually likable.
What I admire the most about Tokyo Tribe is that it's essentially about finding our place, finding our own "tribe", and fitting it in this world together peacefully. We can all be unique, and have our own quirks, and our own turf, but we don't always need to be fighting about it. Apparently we have to have some ridiculously staged battles involving a tank, gatling guns, samurai swords and other weaponry to resolve our differences first, but once we fight and show off some attractive women, we can get back to being homies again and it's all good. Deep down this film has some great things to say, despite being so terrible in some aspects. Aside from the garish set design and very cheap production values, it often times doesn't make sense, random characters disappear, they stuff in more humor where it doesn't always work. But damnit, it's so much fun.
Maybe you have to be in the right mind. This isn't the kind of film that deserves any accolades for any of its technical work, but does deserve recognition for its originality, silliness and audacity telling a contemporary story about finding your own tribe. I can't believe anyone actually made this film, and came up with all these lyrics and this entire world, all inspired (in some way) by the real world we currently live in. It has to come from somewhere, whether that's the mind of Sion Sono and/or the massive ensemble cast that participated in this, and I feel like it captured the soul of this generation. Then slapped it around, threw it out on the mean streets, and said "why don't you rap about anything you don't like!" Express yourselves any way you know how. The result is entertainment unlike any other, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it cinematic chaos.
In all truth I really loved the experience of Tokyo Tribe more than the film. It's way too long at nearly two hours, with way too many characters that don't need pointless subplots, especially when it never cares to wrap them up anyway; it has way too much misogyny, and not enough emotion; it's incoherent yet still gives us enough of a story to follow. The world is unique, but not elaborate enough; and the fights are fun, but not impressively crafted. Despite all this criticism which is hard to deny, it's still totally balls out, insane, wacky and just plain awesome. And it's still worth experiencing with a bunch of friends who are up for seeing something they will most likely never forget, for better or worse. Have fun. "Tokyo Tribe, never ever die!"
Alex's Fantastic Fest Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing