Tokyo Tribe practically demands hyperbolic metaphors, but the best way to describe Sion Sono’s maximalist rap musical is offered up by the extreme auteur himself in the film’s opening scene. Sono’s camera swoops and bucks through neon-streaked Tokyo streets in an impressive long shot, surveying scantily-clad ladies, raving doomsayers, overweening gangsters and a wizened old lady spinning records. That lady is perhaps a deity or demon, but all DJs seem deific in this world; for if this world is a stage, it’s the stage of a rap concert. Its players are the MCs, spitting rhymes and braggadocio to the fourth wall.
That aforementioned metaphor arrives with the police; a young rookie strides out of her police car to confront the unruly mob (In case you hadn’t worked out what sort of movie you’re watching yet, she’s played by adult actress and Friday Magazine’s “Most Sexy Body” winner, Kokone Sasaki, who wears high heels, a black pencil skirt and a white top rendered instantly transparent by the pouring rain). She soon finds a group of crooks selling cassettes from the back of a car. Her attempts to conduct an arrest don’t go so well – she’s stripped naked and utilized as a vessel for exposition – but it’s here we find our metaphor: those mixtapes are actually vessels for selling illicit drugs. That’s Tokyo Tribe for you: hard drugs packaged in a gaudy mixtape.
The mix itself is diverse and, like most mixtapes, unafraid to borrow widely. Yes, there’s a thick vein of Japanese exploitation movies pulsing, but Tokyo Tribe is also a grindhouse take on West Side Story and a rap remix of The Warriors. Spring Breakers feels like a strong influence – right down to the jarring sound-effects that accompany its cuts – to the point where it could have sprung forth from the vivid imagination of Alien (James Franco). The film’s ramshackle outdoor future-dystopian sets recall Escape from New York; a later interior scene homages the ‘milk bar’ from A Clockwork Orange, except with actual people as the furniture. Another set is head-to-foot glittering gold, as though Sono saw the cover of Watch the Throne and decided to shoot a film there.
That sort of hip-hop aesthetic lingers throughout. The film is a rap battle – literally, at times, other times via kung fu or gunplay – shot like a ‘00s rap video set in the front cover of a ‘00s rap album cover (the kind of aesthetic that finds cheapness in excess – like a gold-plated machine pistol that doubles as a cellular phone, which is actually a thing in this movie). The whole thing is deliriously fun for the most part, a perfect midnight movie whose entire purpose is to entertain with its excessive audacity – when you’re not laughing, you’ll be grinning. There’s a loose plot, technically, but given it revolves around dick-measuring contests and “pristine pussy”, there’s no expectation to take it at all seriously.
Tokyo Tribe’s only failing is that it can’t quite maintain momentum for its near-two-hour runtime, but that was probably an impossible ask. There’s a reason music videos generally run for less than five minutes. Even as some of the film’s most entertaining aspects – like Riki Takeuchi’s goggle-eyed, Elvis-by-way-of-Satan performance – edge towards diminishing returns, Sono remembers to up the ante, introducing disco tanks and gatling guns just as you contemplate checking your watch. This is the kind of film that you want to walk back in and rewatch immediately upon finishing – don’t miss it.