New to Blu: Tokyo Tribe (2015)

Michelle reviews this week's blu-ray release, Tokyo Tribe!

"I see your sword is bigger than mine!
The enhancement drugs are finally working."
If you have ever wanted to watch a movie about Japanese street gangs who dress like rappers circa 1994 and have rap battles in an alternate universe Tokyo, then Shion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe is just the film you have been waiting for all your life. 

As insane and ridiculous as the premise sounds, and it is indeed preposterous, Sono manages to paint a gloriously colorful and creative world for these over-the-top characters to exist in. This film is based off of a manga that was serialized from 1997-2005 and there is an anime series that was made from it as well. The plot, which is a mash-up of the 1979 cult classic film The Warriors and a Snoop Dogg music video, is convoluted and jumps all over the place hardly letting the audience catch their breath. It’s also a musical. Yes, you heard me right, it’s a musical in which most of the spoken dialog is rapped. I’m not sure how many rap musicals exist, but it can’t be that many.

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Is the rapping any good though? Well…yes and no. Most of the beats and rap styles mimic what was coming out in the 1990s, and each Tokyo Tribe has a different style that they use. It has everything from smooth Nas style lyrical rapping to the more aggressive and choppy DMX/Ruff Ryders vibe. What is interesting is when the characters rap, they mix English words and phrases in with the Japanese, but still rhyme them together. The subtitle translation team for the Blu-ray I watched deserves some serious props because they keep the structure of the rhymes intact but still make it comprehensible to the viewer. Now, I am not too familiar with the Japanese hip-hop scene, so I couldn’t tell who was a legit rapper in the film, but some of the actors are way better than the others at flow. For the most part it’s good though and there are a few outstanding scenes (one in particular involving a beatboxing waitress). 

asian cinema
"Make a comment about my hair again!
I dare 'ya!"
The Tokyo depicted in the film is incredibly detailed and full of a dizzying amount of colors and sounds. Sono takes hip-hop culture and dials it up to its maximum output with graffiti, crazy outfits, bling, pimped-out vehicles (one guy drives around a van that has two full-sized crystal chandeliers with lit skull candles hanging off the side windows), a Tribe boss who likes to wear nothing but a thong and flip-flops and many more irrational things. The atmosphere reminds me of the anime Tekkonkinkreet, with its crowded architecture and ramshackle cobbled together appearance. It comes off more as a love and appreciation for the hip-hop concept rather than cultural appropriation--though I am sure some people won’t agree with me on that issue.  At no point does this film mock black culture--rather it’s a celebration of the excesses of that particular genre of music.

Tokyo Tribe is a unique experience that might not be appeal to the casual movie goer. Those who are familiar with Shion Sono’s filmography know that he tends to make bizarre and surreal films so they will be better prepared to watch a gangster movie/rap opera. While this movie isn’t perfect by any means, as the story doesn’t really make sense and some of music is weak, on a whole Sono succeeds in making an interesting addition to Japanese cinema.


-Michelle Kisner