Spank The Monkey reviews the world’s first battle rap musical. Just be grateful he didn’t try to make this standfirst rhyme.
As the cliché has it, there are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who’ve watched fifty Japanese schoolgirls collectively throw themselves under a Tokyo train, and the ones who haven’t. Those of you who fall into the former category can probably remember the first time you saw that clip from Suicide Circle, the film that brought Sion Sono to the attention of the West. The rest of you should watch it now, as it pretty much encapsulates what the director does in just under 100 seconds.
The temptation is to lump Sono in with all those other Japanese filmmakers working in what video shops used to classify as Asia Extreme, with Takashi Miike being the most obvious example. That would be a mistake. Sono has ideas to burn, but not necessarily the talent to make them work on film, as illustrated by the Suicide Circle clip: if this was your first time watching it, I’d like to bet that the version you had in your head beforehand had better mise-en-scène than the version on YouTube. Sono keeps getting away with it, though – partly because of the quality of his ideas, partly because he’s continuously excused as Subverting Genre Expectations rather than Not Being Very Good At Genre, similar to Nigel Farage’s approach to being an MEP.
Sono’s output, as a result, can be patchy as hell. But he does have one solid-gold classic under his belt: Love Exposure, an exploration of Catholic guilt and ninja-style upskirt photography that transforms over a gargantuan four hours into a tender love story. Since its release in 2008, Sono’s been struggling to match it for ambition: he’s made two grim arthouse dramas and a couple of meditations on the Great East Japan Earthquake, followed by a gory yakuza-versus-indie-filmmakers farce. Most of these films have barely made an impact in the UK, and were largely restricted to one-off appearances at festivals like Terracotta. But this year Terracotta is taking a break for a rethink, which may partly explain why Tokyo Tribe is Sono’s first film in a while to get a limited UK theatrical release.
If you’ve watched the trailer, then you know Tokyo Tribe‘s USP: it’s “the world’s first battle rap musical”, with most of its dialogue taking the form of rhymes recited over beats. And yet, as its overambitious opening dragged into its fifth minute – a massive one-take crane shot swooping through a block-sized exterior set, introducing some of the key characters along the way – I was reminded of a less hip and less flattering reference point: Absolute Beginners. The difference is, Absolute Beginners dumped all its exposition on you in voiceover to a Charlie Mingus backing, while Tokyo Tribe accompanies it with leering shots of a knife being scraped over a policewoman’s exposed breasts. The knife’s being wielded by Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), who runs the Bukuro Wu-Ronz gang: he uses it to illustrate how they’re just one of 23 tribes scattered across Tokyo, one for each ward in the city.
Bukuro Wu-Ronz, Shibuya Saru, Shinjuku Hands, Kabukicho’s Gira Gira Girls, the Nerimuthafuckaz… depending on your own experience of the city, the tribe names either sound like the most gangsta thing in the world, or the Japanese equivalent of the Staines Massive. Our narrator Show (Shôta Sometani), in the meantime, is a member of Musashino Saru, a happy clappy bunch led by Kai (Young Dais), who want to know why we all can’t just live together. There’s a very uneasy peace running across the city, and it won’t take much to break it. When city boss Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi, Japan’s reigning champion of B-movie overacting) orders his guys to pull some women off the streets for his pleasure, and they pick up the mysterious Sunmi (Nana Seino), that’s what eventually does it.
Based on a popular manga by Santa Inoue, Tokyo Tribe has all the problems you’d expect when a long-running comics series is compressed into two hours. Sono feels he’s got to cram in all the characters and situations that readers already know, and we end up with a film that’s ludicrously overstuffed while being light on plot. The battle rap gimmick could perhaps be seen as a way of distracting the casual viewer from that. Lyrically, it isn’t all that bad – the performers each have their own distinctive flow, with rappers Ego and Young Dais assisting with the subtitle translation to make sure that English viewers aren’t left cringing in their seats. Musically, though, it’s a bit dull, with BCDMG’s backing beats feeling rather generic and far too repetitive.
But it’s also got all the problems of any other Sono film: when in doubt, he uses excess to cover up for his shortcomings. The misogyny is the worst offence – there’s no reason for Mera to have threatened that policewoman in the opening sequence, except to make it less surprising later on when he does exactly the same thing to the only female character we care about. It’s a similar story with the violence: there’s no real progression in the fight scenes that break out at regular intervals throughout the film, only that the number of people involved in them keeps increasing. By the climax, Sono has to throw in giant CGI mincing machines to raise the stakes at all, because everyone’s expecting a Suicide Circle-style gory bit, no matter how out of place it is with everything else.
It looks like it’ll be a long time before Sion Sono makes a film as consistently great as Love Exposure (and no, I have no idea how you square that with the fact that it’s also his longest one). But Tokyo Tribe does have moments where, once again, the quality of his ideas shines through the occasional ham-fistedness of his filmmaking. The best one of these comes near the end, when it’s casually revealed what the cause of this gang war was in the first place. (But even then, Sono can’t leave it alone, and hammers the gag home in an unnecessary closing credits sting.) Moments like that mean that even though it may be Sono’s first UK theatrical release in three years, Tokyo Tribe will probably work best on your home TV with a couple of glasses of lowered standards. Which is, coincidentally, how I watched it.
Tokyo Tribe opens in selected cinemas tomorrow, and will be released on home video by Eureka Entertainment on June 15th.