Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The demented rap musical Tokyo Tribe is both exhilarating and exhausting

Illustration for article titled The demented rap musical Tokyo Tribe is both exhilarating and exhausting

Master P’s gold-plated tank plowing through the back streets of Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City, and straight into an old pinky violence flick—that’s the aesthetic of Tokyo Tribe in a nutshell, and anyone who doesn’t perk up at the mention of stylized sets, vintage MTV decadence, and Japan’s lurid B-movie tradition is probably better off looking elsewhere. Sion Sono’s hip-hop musical is a chiefly visual pleasure, in part because most of the cast can’t rap worth a damn; its warped frame bounces between shimmering neons and fluorescents, disco-ball samurai suits, living statues, and all kinds of things that have been painted gold for gold’s sake. Here, the limos are so fancy that they have full-size crystal chandeliers in place of headlights, and street gangs face off in costumes that would make The Warriors’ Baseball Furies blush.

Sono, the transgressive punk filmmaker behind such hard-to-classify cult items as Suicide Club and Love Exposure, is known for lobbing curveballs, but this is one of his more straightforward movies—a panorama of the ludicrous and tasteless, where the hammy villains and loony, frequently shouted dialogue (“It ain’t dick size—it’s the size of a man’s heart that makes him great!”) seem as much a part of the sets as the giant Scarface globe that reads “Fuck Da World.” (A giveaway: The big bad’s signature look is a suit made out of what appears to be upholstery fabric; here, everybody’s just outré decor.) In short, Tokyo Tribe is pure trash: a glistening garbage collage of everything from sleazy rape-revenge flicks to breakdancing musicals, shot in cavernous soundstages cluttered with bizarre street life, the camera nodding and swaying in long, eccentrically choreographed takes while characters boastfully rap over sleepy beats.

Cram enough bad movie into one place, and you end up with something that’s crazed, toeing the line between exhilaration and exhaustion. (Admittedly, Sono also pilfers plenty from marginally more respectable sources, including Walter Hill’s rock ’n’ roll fantasy Streets Of Fire and Julien Temple’s underrated Absolute Beginners.) The plot—very loosely adapted from Santa Inoue’s manga Tokyo Tribe 2—pits an old-school-styled street gang that only wants to party and hang out against the vicious syndicate run by cannibal mobster Buppa (former Takashi Miike regular Riki Takeuchi), his creepy son Nkoi (Yôsuke Kubozuka), and bleached-blond underboss Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki, in what could be described as the “Sting in Dune” role).

There’s also a mystery woman (Nana Seino) and a whole lot of stylized street thugs introduced via title card, but ultimately, it comes down to the old derivative fable of good gangs against bad—which, in a typically demented touch, Sono recasts as a literal dick-measuring contest. With its over-the-top violence, cast of bizarre bit characters (a beat-boxing henchwoman, a DJ granny, etc.), and a compulsion to interject phallic imagery that borders on coprographia, Tokyo Tribe throws so much at the viewer that it’s easy to get swept up in its deranged energy and overlook the fact that the movie doesn’t have a flicker of a brain cell, being not much more than a celebration of aggressive stupidity. Sometimes, that’s fine.