The story is as simple as it is old: gangs spread throughout a feudalistic modern Tokyo are suddenly under threat of a kingpin, Buppa, and his plan to sow seeds of dissension among them, when a force of divine intervention, embodied by a deadly kick wielding femme fatale Erika,carries the message that uniting and fighting against the most powerful forces at the top could lead to a brighter future than taking one another out.
It is an exercise in opulence on the same level as Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby, even as it shows an impoverished Tokyo cityscape overrun by crime, and especially inside the lavish headquarters of overlord Buppa. The visuals are as varied in their influences and reference points as they are absorbing. A walk through a brothel in the city’s red light district reveals corridors lined by endlessly repeating patterns of pink and red balloons, like something straight out of a Yayoi Kusama exhibition. Then, there are moments of weird excess, like the room belonging to Buppa‘s son, populated by naked human statues. Did someone order armored tanks rumbling through the city? Check. There is a seemingly limitless roll out of visual treats.
The last time I was this excited by set piece after set piece throughout a single movie was while watching the Japanese film Helter Skelter, screened during a previous New York Asian Film Festival. In fact at that time, I suggested how wonderful it would be for Sono and that film’s photographer turned director Mika Ninagawa to direct a film together. The fantasy still stands. It’s surely no coincidence, though, that the director of photography credited for both films, as well Sabu’s stark but visually arresting Miss Zombie, is Daisuke Soma, making his a name to pay attention to.
As much fun as Tokyo Tribe is, Sono’s usual knack for gleefully convoluting seemingly simple tales of revenge and longing by weaving together characters’ personal stories and incredulous coincidences is not on display here. After a solid 2 hours spent in this world, I couldn’t tell you much of a difference between a saru or a nerimuthfucka or a Shinjuku Hand, or the plethora of other gangs populating the neon-tinged terrain, save for the uniform-like apparel making them not unlike the characters straight out of The Warriors. Even as Kai, the oft name checked leader of the Saru gang, battles against the nihilistic Merra, whose shades, bling, buff physique, and shock of blonde hair merges Terminator era Schwarzenneger with current pro wrestling hero Kazuchika Okada, there is not much distinguishing him from the rest of the movie’s extensive cast. It’s nice to see that women still play aggressive and imposing roles in this latest if Sono’s celluloid visions, as is very much the case with Erika, even if their characters are not very nuanced.
While the concept of storytelling through song still earns novelty points, and is impressive in its execution, it doesn’t make the story all that much more intriguing. There is a lot of repetition and posturing that doesn't move the narrative forward. Or sideways or backwards. Still the constant refrains of ‘Tokyo Tribe, never ever die’ and ‘Nerimothafuckahhh’ amidst the other retorts become battle cries that are lodged in your brain instantly. This isn’t an altogether haphazard use of sonic repetition either, a tool that Sono has wrought in all of his films. Yet, the brief appearance of refrains from classical scores and bursts of frenzied jazz drumming familiar from his other films stand out, becoming instantly more compelling than the somewhat generic hip hop production.
Structurally the film is not unlike the director’s much acclaimed and also recently created Why Don’t You Play In Hell, despite that film’s far greater complexity and sense of personal importance. There is a slowly building buzz of activity among various players in different locales that eventually explodes into a large scale grand guignol battle extraordinaire. One can imagine the execution on one of the film’s battle scenes being a dry run of what would be attempted in the other. Those on the look out for call-backs will even find a similar, albeit short lived reference to Bruce Lee worship. The pay off is a dizzying mix of spattering blood and flashing neon that is awesome to behold, a reminder that Hollywood has nothing on the wildest imaginations in the independent cinema, when they are let loose.
My friend Mark insisted I mention the fact that Japanese pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama is in the movie with his distinctive long blonde hair, as one of Buppa’s soldiers, and that alone is reason to check out the movie.
For those New Yorkers who prefer their fireworks indoors on a screen to in the open air, and set to hip-hop rather than ‘America The Beautiful,’ The New York Asian Film Festival is showing TOKYO TRIBE at 10 pm on July 4 at the Walter Reade theater of Lincoln Center. It also plays a week later on July 11 at NYAFF’s new part time headquarters, the SVA Theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.