Masquerading as a hip-hop martial arts musical, Tokyo Tribe is mostly just a puerile male fantasy come to hypercolor life. A conceit that seems like it would be pretty awesome—equal parts Wu-Tang Clan and Seijun Suzuki—it takes about five minutes to get suffocatingly old, which leaves about ten more minutes to sit through just to get all the exposition and introductions out of the way. Director Sion Sono—known for testing the limits of obnoxious filmmaking fury with a restless style perhaps best used in last year’s meta Why Don’t You Play In Hell?—is game for whatever, and from the jump he proves it: Welcome to the shithole of Tokyo, he screams via a near-six-minute single take, reminiscent, unfortunately, of Touch of Evil, replete with the swooning crane shots and the pick-your-pleasure eye candy of a Where’s Waldo fold-out. We cartwheel, double back, tilt and spiral into madness with Sono’s camera; as a simple display of virtuosity, the first shot might leave a few viewers breathless. Prepare yourself for like five more.
Sono blows his load within these first six minutes. And all gross sexual punning is intended, because during said minutes, the director not only casts inner-city Tokyo in the pall of a post-earthquake vision of a misogynist dystopia—narrated by one of the most insufferable rappers on the face of the planet (Shôta Sometani, not an actual MC)—he demonstrates the futility of the Tokyo Police Department by having an attractive police officer (who, of course, is not wearing a bra in a rain storm, and is dressed in a short leather skirt) attempt to arrest the nefarious Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki), but instead is nearly raped in front of a slavering crowd, her stomach and chest used as an ersatz map of Tokyo to then introduce the many “tribes” scattered throughout the city. It’s a hard scene to describe because it’s so stupid: The woman is apparently an idealistic rookie cop who dresses like an expensive call girl, sexually assaulted for expositional purposes, an act which also doubles as a metaphor for the extreme lawlessness of Tokyo. This whole ordeal is shot in a kind of thrilling one-take smorgasbord of technical bravura and visual storytelling; the fate of this woman is never revealed.
So let’s take stock of where we’re at: After only 15 minutes into Tokyo Tribe, we’ve endured the fact that Sion Sono is so tone-deaf he mistakes shamelessness for ambition, and we’ve been introduced to every gang in the city care of a bunch of really excruciating hip-hop. Much of Tokyo Tribe is told in rhymes, each gang assigned a particular style or sub-genre, as if the whole film takes place within a cipher from which the characters must battle their way to the top. It’s a fascinating idea until the music actually emanates from whatever source of sound one is using to watch this movie, because every single “song” here is just barely listenable tripe. The cuts run the gamut, from backpacker idealism to trap music hedonism, but none of it ever sticks. No indelible hooks, no clever wordplay—lyrics exist only to ping familiar rap tropes and provide plot points. If the phrase “Tokyo Tribes, never say die” gets stuck in your brain, that is only because it is uttered ad nauseam.
Inevitably, Mera is tasked with the liquidation of all other Tokyo Tribes by mob boss Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), who is a hilarious caricature of dick-wagging super-evil. This is the kind of bad guy who eats his adversaries, who has a box of assorted severed fingers (which he eats), who masturbates in front of his underlings, who has a face tattoo, who is incomprehensibly good at martial arts even though his body looks like a hunchbacked Minecraft avatar. He’s such an idiotic character, there is absolutely no pleasure in his demise: Impaled by a dozen samurai swords and then frappé’d to smithereens in a sort of comical Mortal Kombat-esque giant wall-mounted blender, this incomprehensible manifestation of bestial indifference is so inchoate, there’s nothing for which to resent him, no evil for which any viewer can realistically hold his character emotionally accountable. When he dies, there is no celebration, there is only time: wasted, left and existentially regretted.
Eventually Sono’s pace settles into a pattern, as do the couplets the characters use to describe, to no end, the action we’re witnessing as it happens. Something occurs, then characters rap about what occurs, and then Sono films it by spinning around a literal cipher as if he’s photographing a heated conversation on a doctor drama. By the time the third act rolls around, accompanied by a chintzy CG tank straight out of a Masta P music video, every hip hop archetype has been bloodied to a pulp, from the ubiquitous “no homo” gay panic bullshit to the fact that one of the gangs is pretty much P.O.D. without the Christian pandering. It’s exhausting.
Between The Warriors, The Raid and Chicago exists Tokyo Tribe, gorging on its share of pinku-style camp, ultra-violent manga and hallucinogenic exploitation cinema. Sono seems to want his film to be everything, absorb everything—yet he rarely intuits that some genres just can’t work together. When it’s revealed that Mera’s bloodlust is primarily fueled by a small-penis complex—seriously—the film seems to aim for commentary on the misogyny and posturing of the cultures it portrays. Instead, it balks: The good guy has a huge penis, and the bad guy does not. This, according to Tokyo Tribe, is what will bring a city back from the edge.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono (screenplay); Santa Inoue (manga)
Starring: Shôta Sometani, Ryôhei Suzuki, Riki Takeuchi, Nana Seino, Ryûta Satô, Young Dais
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.