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Film Review: ‘Tokyo Tribe’

Cult Nippon helmer Sion Sono's gangland rap-musical fantasia is too much of a good thing.

Tokyo Tribe Toronto Film Festival

Equal parts “The Warriors” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” Sion Sono’s rap musical “Tokyo Tribe” is also self-referential Japanese genre exploitation movie to the marrow, meaning there’s plenty of pinku-style nudity and threatened rape, martial-arts action and the occasional blood geyser. If that sounds like fun, it is, although the latest from the culty maker of “Suicide Club,” “Love Exposure” and last year’s TIFF Midnight Madness audience-award winner, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” is so insistently over-the-top from the start that the results are just fairly amusing when they ought to be exhilarating. Already in release in Japan, “Tokyo Tribe” should sell in other Asian markets where hip-hop has made strong pop-culture inroads. Elsewhere, it will have campy appeal as a niche home-format item.

Sadistic, cannibalistic yakuza boss Lord Buppa (the almost unbearably hammy Riki Takeuchi, a Takashi Miike veteran) keeps the various individual gangs dominating Tokyo districts at war with each other, while biding time until the day he’ll exterminate them all. That day has arrived, just as his henchmen haul in a new batch of hapless young lovelies to be turned into prostitutes (or dinner). Among them is the seemingly demure Sunmi (Nana Seino), a secretive stranger to these parts whose virginal body naturally turns out to be an unstoppable killing machine when ill treated. She excites the interest of Buppa’s two “sons”: the creepy, braid-haired biological one, Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), and his perpetually shirtless, bloodthirsty bottle-blond lieutenant, Mera (Ryohei Suzuki).

For personal reasons that emerge late as one of pic’s better jokes, the latter has a grudge against Tokyo’s one nice gang, the love-and-peaceniks of Musashino, in particular their leader Kai (Young Dais). He has a couple of members lured to red-light Sagu Town, where they’re held captive as bait. Kai & Co. duly pursue, soon teaming up with Sunmi and her lethal-breakdancing junior sidekick, Yon (Kikoto Sakaguchi), as Buppa unleashes his “Wafu” hoards to decimate all the gangs. As if all this weren’t more than enough already, there are a dozen or so other absurdly colorful featured characters and a few earthquakes, plus a Gatling gun and a smidgen of Satanism.

Not exactly “sung through,” but far heavier on rapping than on spoken dialogue, the soundtrack’s mostly generic old-school beats support lyrics by a host of Japanese performers (many of whom have roles here) that are often funny sometimes inadvertently, but mostly in a deliberately crass, obscene-boasting way. Delivery ranges from the decent to the dreadful, with youthful narrator MC (Shota Sometani) delivering mumbling-monotone flow, among numerous elements likely to make any hardcore hip-hop viewers howl. Still, “Tokyo Tribe’s” tongue is so far in cheek that even its dumbest aspects can be construed as some sort of homage.

Beyond the major influence, plot-wise and otherwise, of “The Warriors” (as well as Walter Hill’s other urban-warfare fantasia, “Streets of Fire”), the pic is full of movie in-jokes, the most conspicuous and striking being a recurring nod to the Korova Milk Bar in “A Clockwork Orange.” For all its gangland/kung fu/samurai trappings, in many ways the feature’s closest stylistic model is Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” (1986), another outre musical with an equal penchant for elaborate camera choreography, candy colors and surreal “street” life almost entirely shot on cluttered, fantastical soundstage sets. That movie, too, landed smack between the delightful and the wearying. Sono does sustain energy throughout, but it’s all at the same high level, so sequences that should be outrageous peaks instead barely rise above the general frenzy.

Design contributions are, as one might expect, enjoyably unfettered by any pretenses toward reality or good taste, and the tech package is solid. The film’s material, Santa Inoue’s manga sequel “Tokyo Tribe 2” (issued in 12 volumes between 1997 and 2005, and also turned into a 2006 anime series), is reportedly much less cartoonish in tone than Sono’s rapstravaganza.

Film Review: ‘Tokyo Tribe’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 6, 2014. Running time: <strong>116 MIN.</strong> (Original title: "Tokyo Toraibu")

  • Production: (Japan) A Nikkatsu Corp. production. (International sales: Nikkatsu, Tokyo.) Produced by Yoshimori Chiba, Noburhiro Iizuka. Executive producers, Ayako Oguchi, Keizo Yuri.
  • Crew: Directed by Sion Sono. Screenplay, Sono, based on the manga "Tokyo Tribe 2" by Santa Inoue. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Daisuke Soma; editor, Junichi Ito; music, BCDMG, Jashwon; production designer, Yuji Hayashida; costume designer, Chieko Matsumoto; sound, Shinji Watanabe; assistant director, Go Kinomoto; casting, Toshie Tabata.
  • With: Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais, Nana Seino, Shota Sometani, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shota Sometani, Riki Takeuchi, Ryuta Sato, Kikoto Sakaguchi, Shoko Nakagawa, Takuya Ishida, Shunsuke Daito.
  • Music By: