An overwhelming, insane, and exhilarating ride no one will want to get off of.
In a dystopian Tokyo, 23 “tribes” (read: gangs) rule different sections of the city. These tribes range from the GiraGira Girls, a group of women including a whip-cracking dominatrix, to the Musashino Saru, a gang all about promoting peace and love. But it’s the Bukuro Wu-Ronz running everything, and their leader Big Buppa (Takeuchi Riki) is not to be messed with. Mera, one of Bukuro Wu-Ronz’s top members, starts a feud with Musashino Saru heads Tera (Ryuta Sato) and Kai (Young Dais), and the battle soon spins out of control, involving every other tribe in an epic battle to become the most powerful in the city. And did I mention it’s a hip-hop musical? Welcome to the insane world of Sion Sono and Tokyo Tribe.
But that’s not all! There’s also the presence of Sunmi (Nana Seino), a mysterious girl dragged into the gang conflict with some serious fighting skills. In fact, a lot of the cast can fight really well. This also happens to be a highly kinetic action film, with numerous fight scenes placed in between the rap songs sung by the massive cast. Sometani Shota provides help for viewers as the film’s MC, walking around scenes rapping exposition about different tribes and their feuds with other gangs. Just don’t bother actually trying to understand what the hell is going on, though. Tokyo Tribe is so dense and convoluted there are already 50 other things occurring the minute after a scene ends.
The density and hyperactivity of Sono’s style prove his film’s biggest strength and weakness. Sono, working with what looks like his biggest budget to date, packs as much as he possibly can into each frame. His shots are more ambitious, letting things play out in long, elaborate single takes, the camera moving all over the place. The set design is on a whole other level compared to Sono’s previous films as well, with so many elaborately designed locations for each tribe. And Sono never takes a moment to breathe, whipping back and forth between places, stuffing each one with as many extras and activity as possible, all while putting the camera right in the middle of it. It’s exhilarating, but at the same time incredibly exhausting
Trying to watch Tokyo Tribe for its story, nothing more than a standard gangster epic with a message about community, won’t maximize the amount of shock and joy Sono throws around on-screen. It’s the quirks and little moments that work best. Like Big Buppa’s son having a room where people act as his furniture. Or a massive karate fighter wishing someone a happy birthday as they punch them 50 feet in the air (one of the fighter’s only lines: “Take me! To! A sauna!”). Or an army tank driving around Tokyo blowing shit up. Tokyo Tribe is full of these kinds of insane, world-building moments, most of them hilariously original and bonkers beyond belief.
And even though Sono’s restlessness can get tiring at times, it doesn’t take away from the utter brilliance of Tokyo Tribe. No one injects more insanity and ideas into their films on a moment-by-moment basis the way Sono does. It was hard to imagine how Sono could outdo his previous film Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, but with Tokyo Tribe he’s outdone himself completely, and by successfully taking on musicals he feels unstoppable. With a propulsive, catchy score, Tokyo Tribe doesn’t have to try to be energetic. It breathes vivaciousness. Tokyo Tribe will leave viewers dazed, assaulted, and mortified, but by the end they’ll be begging for more.
A version of this review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.