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Tokyo Tribe | Review

Why Don’t You Play in the Streets?: Sono’s Overblown Street War Musical

Sion Sono Tokyo Tribe PosterMany consider Sion Sono to be Takashi Miike’s succeeding enfant terrible, both in the sheer magnitude of prolific output as well as his provocative depictions of violence and sexuality. His meta-bizarro 2013 entry, homage to B-action film tropes Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was championed by many for its Grand Guignol celebration of overzealous filmmaking, though it showcased many of the director’s worst tendencies as regards his ability to concisely edit himself. Fans of his desensitizing overloads of maddening visual stimulations, particularly those who considered the two hour continual explosion of Hell to be a cornerstone masterpiece in his filmography, should certainly appreciate his 2014 follow-up Tokyo Tribe, a hip-hop musical street turf face-off, as a pleasurable aftershock. Others will find its elaborate visuals to be marred by endless tone-deaf musical performances, much like being trapped in a vehicular tour of an urban post-apocalyptic fallout with an obnoxious and incessantly singing passenger.

A singing narrator (Shota Sometani) sets the scene of a current crisis in a parallel version of dystopic Tokyo. Twenty-three gangs, who call themselves tribes, lord over the grimy streets of the city. But cruel overlord Bubba (Rika Takeuchi) wishes to control the entirety of Tokyo proper, and so he begins an all-out turf war, though his real rivals seem to be Tera (Ryuta Sato) and Kai (Young Dais). At the same time, Sunmi (Nana Seino), daughter of a VIP, gets thrown into the mix, eluding capture from Bubba and his son, who wish to make her an unwilling slave/fixture in their own idiosyncratic universe. Eventually, the roving tribes realize they must unite in order to defeat Bubba.

Wasting no time between projects, Sono follows his solo 2013 and 2014 outings with no less than six new projects in 2015, many of which have premiered around the world at major film festivals before Tokyo Tribe hits its US theatrical release. Basically a series of musical fight sequences, whereby seemingly endless exposition about each particular gang and its leaders forms the steady stream of lyrical interludes, this feels like The Raid re-made as West Side Story, with a kingpin’s kidnapped daughter and an impending juggernaut earthquake racing towards Sono’s inevitable ‘battle of five armies’ climax.

Colorful characterizations, including Riki Takeuchi’s sadistic overlord Bubba and his Rocky Horror Day-Glo died lieutenant Mera, (an eternally snarling Ryuhei Suzuki, who has a severe case of penis envy) stand out in this merry-go-round of elaborately choreographed sequences. DoP Daisuke Soma manages an impressive array of single takes amidst all this madness, even though Tokyo Tribe becomes crushingly monotonous, its style not reason enough to stretch this silly narrative to the brink of a two hour running time. Belabored antics soon engulf the title’s initial subversive energies, and might have been more fun if it hovered around the eighty minute mark.

Hip hop troupe BCDMG concocted the lyrical content, and many well-known Japanese rappers appear in the mix. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the goofiness of the content, many of these sequences feel rather amateurish and leaving Tokyo Tribe to be best appreciated by Sono’s die-hard cult following.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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