The ‘Japanese rap musical’ sub-genre (expect this to description to show up on Netflix as a category at some point) isn’t exactly ripe with obvious cinematic touchstones. Then again, director Sion Sono is arguably best remembered for the four-hour-long Love Exposure, so he probably didn’t even see it as a risk.
Coming across as The Warriors by way of Battle Royale, Tokyo Tribe presents a dystopian future in which the Japanese capital has become completely overrun by gangs with a penchant for spoken-word melodies. With each gang being forced to stick to their own areas, things take a turn for the bloody when enforcer Mera (Ryohei Suzuki) acts on a grudge against peaceful rival leader Kai (Young Dais).
One of the most intriguing aspects of this curio is the aforementioned ‘Battle Rap Musical’ description of it. Ultimately, this also becomes its biggest letdown, as truth be told, not a lot of rapping actually happens, save for the start and end. Plus, musicals aren’t as good when you have to read everything in subtitles. Sorry, but it’s the truth; they just aren’t.
Also making things that bit more problematic is the barely disguised undercurrent of misogyny that runs through it. The opening scene sees Mera tracing a map of the Tokyo gangland territories over a topless hostage.
With a knife. Both unsettling and hard to watch, it’s not the best start to things, especially when the subsequent characterisation of the film’s female characters consists of the whole ‘empowering through kicking bad men in the gonads’ thing, rather than exhibiting any halfway interesting character traits.
The rest of the film is all over the place: Tokyo Tribe goes from one extreme to another, making things extremely hard to follow. Supernatural elements like super-strong henchman are thrown in ad-hoc, and tonally it can’t seem to decide whether it’s serious or not, veering from West Side Story-style tragedy and The Warriors-tinged bleakness to penis jokes.
There’s a halfway interesting movie in here somewhere. Beneath the rampant sexism and borderline schizophrenic mishmash of tones, that is.