In an alternate universe Tokyo that looks like a 1980’s cult film’s vision of 2015 – all neon, leather, and garbage – neighborhoods are controlled by a motley collection of creative gangs. Some are relatively benign – unruly party animals. Others are straight up nasty – running brothels, kidnapping slaves, and indulging in some cannibalism. This is the world of Tokyo Tribe, first a manga by Santa Inoue, now the latest manic genre explosion from Japanese provocateur Sion Sono. His eccentric previous films include Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a gory amateur-filmmakers-caught-in-a-real-Yakuza-war action comedy, and Love Exposure, a four-hour coming-of-age epic featuring Catholicism, cults, and upskirt photography. There’s no one else quite like Sono in cinema today, or ever for that matter. His latest is glowing kitsch, a gang warfare hip-hop musical that makes most pre-fab midnight movie cult items look sane and stately. Lesser films try too hard to be strange. For Sono it comes naturally, energetically, and extravagantly.
Like an alien studied our pop culture for decades and regurgitated it back in a two-hour kaleidoscope, Tokyo Tribe is exhausting and entertaining in equal measure, a collection of influences adding up to one nutty vision. It’s anime and MTV, Blade Runner and Speed Racer, Takashi Miike and Robert Rodriguez, The Warriors and the Step Ups in a blender missing its lid, spraying vibrant nonsense in every direction, dripping demented glee. On rain-soaked trashy streets is Show (Shôta Sometani), a hoodie-wearing MC/narrator who raps out some mad exposition, telling us about gangs – stoners, go-go dancers, gangsta rappers, and so on – who control various districts. The worst of the worst is a brute (Riki Takeuchi), who rules from a gold-plated mansion where he gnaws on severed fingers he stores in a cigar box. He has a son (Ryôhei Suzuki) who struts around showing off his toned body in thongs or shirtless under fur coats, and is about to stir up some inter-gang conflict. After an hour or so of setup, it’s war, with one gang angling to rule them all, or crush Tokyo on the way down.
A wild and occasionally incomprehensible trip, the movie has brain-melting qualities. It’s an imaginative world unto itself full of fog and fireworks, earthquakes, human furniture, a beatboxing maid, a little old lady DJ, a creepy van with skull-studded chandeliers mounted on its side mirrors, disco-ball samurai armor, a pistol-shaped cell-phone, katanas, bejeweled machine guns, holograms, a kung fu kid, a glowing tank, confetti, bottle rockets, and penis envy. And that’s just scratching the surface. Sono makes dense frames, sometimes cutting like crazy between oddball imagery, other times floating through elaborate sets and choreography in deceptively fluid long takes as likely to capture a dance battle as a real battle. It’s the sort of movie where a boy can pick a lock by breakdancing. His white-clad virginal sister (Nana Seino) has been kidnapped by nasty slimeballs and held captive in a brothel. Later she’s rescued by a nice guy (Young Dais), the leader of a horned-up, but peace-loving, gang headquartered out of a Denny’s knockoff called Penny’s. Yeah. It’s that sort of movie.
Sono lingers over naked bodies and violence in equally prurient ways, eager to watch a gang member trace a map on a captive policewoman’s taut bare midriff, admiring bikinis and blood-soaked swords with the same gaze. He lets each tribe rap at the camera, introducing themselves through bravado while posing in their grubby districts like they’re in post-apocalyptic music videos. Our big bad spits rhymes at us while slicing off a man’s ear, blood spurting out like the final percussive mic drop. And that’s just the first ten minutes. Riotous swings between cornball comedy, martial arts action, and exploitation ogling are held in check by the non-stop thumping hip-hop beat, every line spat with a rapping patter. It’s a chaotic movie, set over the course of one eventful night racing through the Tokyo Tribes. But it takes a lot of formal control to make something so exuberantly nonsensical.
Admittedly, all the above sounds like a mess – uneven, scary, and weird, impossible to take seriously and probably offensive. That’s not an unfair characterization. Its narrative is slack, and the novelty threatens to wear off. And yet there’s an animating spirit of knockabout joy, reveling in messed up images and unpredictable schlock. Sono conducts a movie that’s all setup, then all finale, moving only in grand swooping motions. It’s a musical. It’s a kung fu movie. It’s an acrobatic battle royale and a surreal rap battle rolled up in a story of swirling exaggerated silly stupidity. And yet everyone involved is committed. They mean it. They feel it. The performers are great aesthetic presences, tough and pretty every one. The fights have balletic slicing and flipping. The rapping has a pulsing splatter to match the gore. It’s chaos, and in the end it’s ear-splitting noise and eye-searing color burning a hole in the screen. What’s this wild gang violence amount to? “Sheer nonsense!” one character shouts late in the film, adding, “That’s what war is!” Tokyo Tribe: the first anti-war hip-hop kung fu musical. It’s too much, and that’s the point.