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Director Sion Sono stands in the streets of Tokyo
Director Sion Sono bring J-rap to the big screen. (moviemezzanine.com)

Gangs of Tokyo: Not your typical mobster movie

a/Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

The threshold for widespread shock or novelty has increased exponentially due to the sheer breadth of available internet content. That being said, Tokyo Tribe is a film unlike anything anybody has ever seen before. Hilarious, gross, sexist, confusing, and silly, it’s not the easiest film to boil down to a one sentence description, but here’s an attempt: It is a farcical, tongue-in-cheek, low-budget Japanese-language film centred on a cannibalistic gang that declares war on the other gangs ruling a dystopian Tokyo—and it’s a hip-hop musical.             

‘Musical’ may be a misleading word for this film; although there is a generic beat spinning and shifting throughout the 118-minute film, and characters break into rap in lieu of conversing, insulting, introducing, explaining, or talking for any other reason, it feels strange to refer to the results as ‘songs.’ There were a couple of moments when a chorus emerged and the rap had structure, but typically, characters would arbitrarily switch between rapping or speaking without other characters acknowledging anything abnormal. During the rap sequences, the extras would sometimes nod along with the beat, which never quite defined itself as diegetic or not. Sometimes there was a DJ present, sometimes somebody would start beatboxing and it would grow, and sometimes the bass just erupted from nowhere as one of the characters began to rap.              

Because half of the dialogue was in rap form, a lot of connotation and wordplay seemed to be lost in translation. The English subtitles rhymed, which added to the mise en scène, but most likely involved some language tweaking and modification of the original script.          

The pacing and overall structure of the plot perfectly mirrored the aesthetic of the sets: Cheap, creative, and incomprehensible—but a lot of fun. Every scene of the film’s first half hour centres on new characters, expanding the ensemble cast while introducing the mythos of this dystopian city. But without an identifiable protagonist, the viewer is lost and more or less indifferent to all parties. It was an hour and a half into the film—immediately prior the climax—before those fragments pieced together and the plot of the film properly explained. The film progresses as if the writers changed the focus of the film several times mid-story but forgot to rewrite the beginning.

Those familiar with Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) will be reminded of its set in Tokyo Tribe: A film lot barely pretending to be anything else, inexplicably bathed in primary colour lights. Despite being noticeably fabricated, all of the sets are well-detailed, coated in relevant graffiti and an appropriate amount of grime. Impressively, every set contained a dozen or more extras constantly interacting, fighting, dancing, or just talking around the main characters, making the convincing part of the set the people—not the physical structure.

Although the film is a blatant farce and goes well beyond the boundaries of normality, the sexism goes too far and becomes viscerally disturbing. The first half of the film takes place mostly in a brothel, and even outside of this setting, the women are treated as objects or worse. While this film is not attempting to give any serious opinion on social issues—it features a man getting punched over a building while wailing, “But it’s my birthday,” consistent in its extravagance—the amount of subjugation of all female characters is disgusting.

With a creative director making long, beautiful multi-minute shots that follow a rap from one actor to another, a set and a script that makes up for its poor pacing, and hilarity in its actions and dialogue, this film could have been a great success; however, its low-budget, nonsensical appearance sets it on a path to be a B movie cult classic at best. If you are interested in a film where a man dressed as Elvis shoots a miniature gun haphazardly across a room,while bikini-clad women cheer, or where a secret button reveals a massive fan that sucks people in and chops them up, or where these happen simultaneously during a mediocre rap song, then check out Tokyo Tribe.

Tokyo Tribe premiered in Canada at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 4, and was recently shown at the Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema on Oct. 9 and 10.

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