Within the opening minute of Tokyo Tribe, a man is flying jump-kicked in the head, another announces in terror that there’s an earthquake, a bin is lit on fire and it begins to rain heavily as sirens punctuate the aural soundscape. Over the top of all this, a man walking the streets has already broken into song. “This is a night in Ikebukuro,” (translation) he begins to rap, navigating the chaos as if barely exists at all. It does’t take long to realise that this film is both markedly a Sion Sono flick, whilst maintaing his diversity as a filmmaker in its distinctiveness from his other works. At its core, Tokyo Tribe is a film about the various incarnations of the yakuza across Tokyo. Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Shinjuku (and its Kubukicho subsection) – although that isn’t all. It’s a celebration of the manifestation of hip hop in Japan, as well as a realisation of Sono’s approach to cinema: hypersaturated, absurd and incredibly fast-paced; never boring, always carefully constructed and perpetually redefining the cross-section between popular culture, trash cinema and high art.
Sono casts rappers who are clearly technically proficient to play the lead roles in the film, and the tackiness of their acting sits in contrast with their ability as rappers. For those coming to the film from a non-Japanese speaking background, it’s highly likely it loses a lot of its literal ‘flow’ from the process of reading subtitles that don’t have much rhythmical coherency against a much more cogent aural stage. Most of the rapping is largely humorous and would likely have even greater effect on those more familiar with the language itself. For instance, in one of the largest yakuza gang battles, the Waru crew chants: “Waru! Waru! Waru! Waru!: Money and power through homicide!”– in both a casual social critique and a consistent mocking of the yakuza. The world Sono establishes in Tokyo Tribe isn’t unlike the increasingly intertextual concept of ‘neo-Tokyo’: a mildly futuristic, dreamlike landscape, punctuated by neon lights. The film is framed by visually surreal scenes. For instance, Nkoi, the son of Lord Buppa, dressed in all black throughout the film, walks through a vividly red room strewn with people painted in full white body paint, frozen as statues, many even placed as Nkoi’s furniture. Sono’s depth of frame in scenes like this are in line with much of his work, hyper-saturated, filled with actors in the background and tinged with humour; as Nkoi raps about his feats as he navigates the room. The scene is indicative, however, of one of the problems that punctuate the film. How far can a director take sadism as satire and keep his audiences attention?
Sono has always had quite an ambiguous presentation of moralism in his films, often portraying morally reprehensible characters and acts, yet never overtly proselytising against them. While Tokyo Tribe features fairly brutal treatment of all non-yakuza affiliated characters, the worst is consistently reserved for the women of the film. The constant objectification of the female body has always been part of Sono’s wardrobe of favourite techniques: painting a stark critique of the way in which women are overtly sexualised within Japan, whether in advertising, magazines, anime or film. In most of Sono’s films sexualisation to the point of parody is both evident and tolerable. It’s a broad social criticism and while it sometimes lacks subtlety in execution, it’s always fairly overt that Sono is in the position of critic rather than culprit. Women are not simply sexualised in Sono’s latest, instead they are often the subject of verbal abuse and even more provokingly, physical abuse. It is obvious what Sono intends to do in the film, which is paint, criticise, and mock to the point of absurdity the incredibly misogynistic and patriarchal structure that is the yakuza. There are exceptions, of course. For every scene where one woman will suddenly knock out eight guys there’s another where a group of 15 women in a jail cell rely on a breakdancing man to let them out. Lord Buppa, for instance, is a character incredibly overacted – a parody of himself – and far from believable. This is all part and parcel of Sono’s approach to satirising the group, though again, Buppa’s virulent sexism and abuse of women throughout the film makes the same point ten times over to the point where it becomes regressive.
The final scene offers the redemption that Sono pushes the audience to yearn for the first hour and fifty minutes of the film, however, it feels a case of too little too late. The character of Erika – abused earlier in the film, yet consistently portrayed as unwavering in courage and determination – reappears as the sole figure capable of uniting the rival yakuza against Buppa. “I’m Erika from the Wong Kong Area,” she raps, “you’re slaves to the turf war area.” In the end, Erika is the only character with the intellect capable of uniting the yakuza against the figure most culpable of sexism. Buppa’s misogyny remains overdone, offensive in its attempts to shock and has the potential to render the film unwatchable for many. The final scene is a visual spectacle on par with Sono’s conclusion to Love Exposure, with an attempt at a resolution where most of the explicitly misogynistic characters are either torn to shreds or slaughtered by the women they abused. For instance, Buppa is decapitated by a flying sword, has three knives plunged into his chest and is then sucked into a giant fan and ripped to shreds. It’s easy to say that Sono lacks subtlety in elements of the film, and his display of violence – especially of a sexual kind – occurs as liberally as in more infamous contemporaries such as Takashi Miike. Sono’s film highlights the intensity of sexism within the incessantly patriarchal yakuza. It does this in a way that is likely to upset and offend viewers who are familiar with this sort of aggressive misogyny exhibited by characters within the film. The extremity of Sono’s presentation, however, is similarly likely to highlight and provoke responses from those who argue that sexism of this intensity doesn’t exist; and while Sono’s points on sexism often are aesthetically exaggerated, the points are as palpable as ever. Tokyo Tribe is a complex film that is both extremely silly whilst dealing with markedly more serious issues. It’s not a film for everyone, however, for those who are able to read the film as a stark critique of the stark sexism that permeates the yakuza – albeit one lacking nuance and poise in execution. Tokyo Tribe is one of Sono’s more adventurous films and worth the watch for those keen to see a director at his most artistically conflicted.