EXPECTATIONS: A crazy Sion Sono film with a little bit more than meets the eye.
REVIEW: Sion Sono’s film-making career is the most outrageous over these past few years since the juggernaut known as Takashi Miike. From heart-wrenching drama (Himizu) to satirical teen drama mystery revolving around suicide (Suicide Club) to a spoof/mystery to Yakuza films that is also a ode to 35mm film (Why Don’t You Play in Hell) and of course, his 4 hour epic film about love and religion and many more insane stuff (Love Exposure), there’s always an element of surprise and energy to Sion Sono’s film that is, quite frankly, almost unattainable. And now he’s making a rap/hip-hop musical with his biggest budget to date (until Shinjuku Swan), adapted from a manga by Santa Inoue? Is this Sion Sono compromising his film-making or is he going to live up to its crazy premise? Thankfully, he doesn’t hold back. Not one iota.
Set in a dystopian future, five years after the Shibuya riots, there are many tribes in Tokyo that live in their idea of peace. But one day, a gang member of Musashino Saru is killed by a rival tribe, Bukuro Wu-RONZ. Since the former is standing for pacifism whilst the latter is for violence, a tragic event sets off a war between tribes. During the war, god-like figures are looking for a girl who is in hiding in Tokyo and asks Bukuro Wu-RONZ for their help in exchange for taking over Japan. This synopsis is brief yet necessary, since I do not want to put in spoilers that the trailer may spoil (like a death of a certain character).
First things first, there is a theme in the film that needs to be addressed that might irk some viewers. And that is sexism. I kind of find it funny that when people hear the word “sexism”, people think that it only applies to women. But in this film, both genders are equally skewed and satirized. And yes, it’s exaggerated to the point of hilarity. There’s a scene in the film where it is implied that Riki Takeuchi’s character eats women. Are people really meant to take that seriously? Most, if not all hip-hop has that kind of sexist mentality (Bitches and hos!). There’s a female character that goes nude from the waist above and takes charge of the situation she’s in and there’s a male character who pounces around in his Speedos despite having a problem with his supposed small penis. Both characters take charge of their own problems but both expand on it in different ways. Some ways are constructive but some are destructive. At least in the film, the female characters’ problems don’t revolve around crying over men. If anything, the strongest characters in the film are the female leads. Besides, every person who commits any misogynistic behaviour get their comeuppance by either being defeated and/or killed. If anything, most men look bad because they are portrayed like raving self-centred nutjobs who get into wars over something so little. Figuratively AND literally. The funny thing is that there is a good male character (Yon) played by a female (Makoto Sakaguchi) who’s probably the toughest character in the film. Whereas there’s a bad male character (Nkoi) who dresses up like a woman who treats people (both men and women) like furniture. He’s probably the only asexual character in the film. Seems like equal treatment, as skewered and over-the-top as it is.
But enough about that, let’s see how the movie succeeds. First of all, it’s the easily immersive world building. The sets and locations look spectacular on screen from Buppa’s lair to Pennys’ and the streets of dystopian Tokyo; it’s all gritty and colourful at the same time. Even the camerawork and cinematography is above reproach, sometimes capturing the sets and locations in impressively long takes. All tribes look incredibly distinct from the black-hooded gang Waru to thet tight and gritty Gira Gira Girlz and the boasting and whimsical Nerimuthafuckaz to the subtle and warm Musashino Saru and of course, the glam glitz yet trashy Bukuro Wu-RONZ. I haven’t seen gangs like this in such a way since the 80’s cult classic “The Warriors”. The songs in the film are incredibly catchy and are sung well, considering that most of them singing the songs are actual rappers. Although the singing from the non-rappers are considerably mixed, they don’t embarrass themselves. Amusingly enough, the lyrics on the English subtitles are done in rhyme, which add to the fun. What I also liked about the music is that there are no truly show-stopping moments that interfere with the pacing. Entire scenes of dialogue are sung/rapped and it adds to the immersive feel of the film. A similar approach to this type of singing would be the 2007 musical film, Sweeney Todd.
The characters are, like the tribes, also incredibly distinct and acted out to the hilt. Almost all the characters are hammy, over-the-top and comical, you kinda feel sorry for Young Dais as Kai, who plays his role as quite grounded and idealistic. Ryohei Suzuki is a blast as Mera as he hilariously hides his insecurities with a tough facade.I absolutely loved the back-story between Kai and Mera, and the reason for their conflict. Let’s just say, it is so hilariously stupid, complete with credits sequence, that it actually makes perfect sense in retrospect and is a perfect commentary on real-life, how people go into conflicts over something so little. Riki Takeuchi as Lord Buppa is Riki Takeuchi on speed, and he EATS as well as demeans women. Yosuke Kubozuka as Nkoi was a hoot as Buppa’s son, who has a bedroom that’s right out of A Clockwork Orange. But the standout character for me was Cyborg Kaori. I won’t spoil what she does, but she made me choke in laughter. Searching her up would be a start, but it would spoil the surprise. Sono always makes strong female characters in his films and Tokyo Tribe is no exception. With Nana Seino as Sunmi and Makoto Sakaguchi as Yon, they kick ass, and never get scared, even at the threat of rape. Nana Seino didn’t impress me with her previous film, Danger Dolls, due to her obvious inability to do stunts alongside her more athletic co-stars. But here, she’s improved immensely, clearly doing all of her own stunts and choreography with aplomb (courtesy of martial artist/actor Tak Sakaguchi, under a pseudonym). And having seen her latest films like Nowhere Girl and The Ninja War of Torakage, she’s a force to be reckoned with. That’s not to say Makoto Sakaguchi is no slouch since she’s better than Seino due to the fact that she’s an actual martial artist. Speaking of martial artists, Bernard Ackah and Joey Beni are show-stealers as kung-fu assassins sent to capture someone. Their introduction is one of the best scenes in the film, taking place in a nightclub, filmed with a pink filter.
I would discuss more about the characters like Kesha, MC Show and The High Priest, but that would take way too long. As for the negatives of the film, some of the story elements remain unresolved and the CGI is very shoddy, like a scene involving a tank rampaging through a city is obviously green-screen. But none of that really bothered me. I had so much fun with this film, on my first screening at the Japanese Film Festival 2014 (JFF 2014) not even the crappy seating I was assigned with bothered me. Actually, I think it helped because I could see the entire screen without moving my head, and I could catch so much details within the environments. I wanted to see it again as soon it was over, which I did thanks to the Eureka UK BluRay. Although it’s not as emotionally satisfying as Love Exposure or as affectionate as Why Don’t You Play in Hell, it matches its peers due to its ferocity and sense of chaos and fun. It’s like The Warriors meets Idiocracy, set in a hip-hopera!
The cast are all fantastic and committed in their warped characters
The songs are catchy and never feel like showstoppers
The world building is immersive and eye-catching
Subversiveness of sexism in hip-hop/rap culture is sharp
The energy of the film is sustained throughout
May be too sexist for some
Some loose ends in the story
NOTE: Thanks to Eureka Entertainment for the BluRay and thanks to Japanese Film Festival 2014 and Madman for screening the film in Australia.
Cast: Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais, Shota Sometani, Nana Seino, Makoto Sakaguchi, Riki Takeuchi, Ryuta Sato, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shoko Nakagawa, Yui Ichikawa
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriter: Sion Sono, based on the manga “Tokyo Tribe2” by Santa Inoue