How does one begin writing about Tokyo Tribe? It’s a dumpster fire of a movie: a martial arts rap-battle musical drowning in neon, featuring gratuitous objectification and violence towards women, lifeless characters, and a nonsensical plot that manages to go on way too long. So, it’s definitely a bad movie, and one I can’t ever see myself wanting to sit through again. However, there are individual moments in this movie that are so ostentatious and silly and loud that I can’t help but enjoy them.
About that plot. The movie takes place in Tokyo if Tokyo were late 70’s New York by way of Mad Max’s Wasteland. The city is split up by district, each of which is ruled by a The Warriors-esque gang that appropriates hip-hop culture in much the same way many American movies have historically bastardized Eastern culture.
Our protagonists are the Musashino gang, who are all about harmony and love, as opposed to every other gang in Tokyo; especially the gang led by the golden suited scenery-chewing Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) – who spends his time forcing people to be his furniture, and his right hand man Mera (Ryohei Suzuki) – a bronzed blonde hunk with a grudge against Kai (Young Dais), the leader of the Musashino gang. Buppa’s gang are the villains, not just by way of being the most powerful gang, but by organizing and running a major human trafficking sex-ring that all of the other gangs (including our heroic Musashino’s) frequent.
Besides the growing gang tensions, another chunk of the plot concerns Sunmi (Nana Seino) – one of the girls kidnapped to be a sex slave by Buppa’s gang, who also happens to be the daughter of some sort of magical religious figure, perhaps the movie’s most capable ass kicker, and main font of panty-shots – as she tries to escape her captivity by Buppa, and a ritual sacrifice her father wants to use her for.
If you take some steps back from the movie, it is possible to find the story buried underneath this movie’s incredibly messy plot, but even then, the movie’s main characters are never adequately motivated beyond reacting to the craziness happening scene-to-scene. The reason for Mera’s grudge against Kai, which becomes the movie’s main driving force, isn’t revealed until late in the last act, and it manages to be both incredibly comical and severely anti-climactic at the same time.
Tokyo Tribe’s villains have no problem stealing the show from its woefully underdeveloped and undefined heroes. Takeuchi’s Buppa dominates every scene he’s in. He doesn’t walk so much as lumber around scenes reaching either for a jade dildo he seems to be more connected to than his biological penis, or for a breast to manhandle. And Buppa’s every line is punctuated by an utterly demonic laugh. Meanwhile, Suzuki’s Mera struts shirtless through the entire movie, slicing people in two with a myriad of katanas, and getting into literal dick-measuring contests. If Tokyo Tribe were to be judged just on the quality of its villains, it would be one of the best movies of all time. They are so deliciously and cartoonishly evil that you can’t help but be mesmerized by every action. And they barely even rap!
…which is probably a good thing because most of Tokyo Tribe’s rapping is pathetic. And that’s not purely a judgement of the subtitles. Besides one beatboxing hench-girl, who dominates one of the movie’s most entertaining scenes, Toyko Tribe’s music is uniformly uninspired and low-energy. And many of the actors put little to no emotion into their lyrics. I can’t possibly judge the Japanese language here or how the lyrics are supposed to sound, but the actors delivering them sounded more bored than anything else when dropping bars – they never sold the emotion behind the words the subtitles informed me they were rapping – there was no anger or sadness or inspiration or urgency in their delivery.
Besides scenes that are just so weird they force you to enjoy them, like every other scene with either of the two main antagonists in it, the one with the beatboxing hench-girl, one involving a boy picking a lock via breakdancing, or a bit with bad CGI wall of rotating blades that instantly turns anyone who falls into it into a poof of red; the most enjoyable parts of Tokyo Tribe are the fight scenes. Where the rap-battles fall short, the actual martial arts make up for it with brilliant choreography, wirework, and camera work that captures the beauty of a kung-fu gang war as it travels through the Tokyo Wasteland.
But even the brilliant fight scenes can’t save the movie from being utterly exhausting to sit through. Besides the visual assault of the neon new-money setting, the nigh constant titillation and sexual objectification of women, and those fantastic fight scenes, the movie has too much plot that ultimately means nothing. It’s a case of ten minutes of film having half-an-hours’ worth of plot beats that barely contribute to the story or characters getting developed, and this going on for two hours. It feels like Tokyo Tribe was a three season television show that they turned into a movie by playing at super-speed.
Tokyo Tribe is a beautiful mess. You can tell by the way that some scenes are shot that director Sion Sono knows how to make a movie, and there are small moments that are absolutely inspired, but as a whole, Tokyo Tribe is simply too much. It’s too much plot, too many panty-shots, too many characters; and not enough focus on characters, or music, or cohesiveness to pull something enjoyable out from the ashes of its spectacular garbage fire.