The ostensible point of Tokyo Tribe, a (very) loose adaptation of the manga of the same name, is that it's supposed to be a mess — a gaudy, noisy, 200-pound disco ball of a movie, a J-rap-fueled, 21st-century Warriors. It's loaded with color, noise, movement, attitude, and braggadocio, and a movie with nothing but those things can be a lot of fun — for a while, anyway. Tribe works with every ounce of its furiously beatboxing heart to not be taken seriously, and that ends up being both enjoyable and counterproductive.
A night out on the town
The movie takes place over the course of one long, violent night in a gaudy, cluttered Tokyo, a soundstage creation that's on a par with the synthetic London of Absolute Beginners, or the mini-Chicago of Streets of Fire (movies to which this one owes more than a few debts, I think). Between the burning trash barrels and the flickering neon, narrator Shō (Shōta Sometani, veteran of live-action adaptations like Ping Pong, Parasyte, Bakuman, and Devilman) schools the audience about the coming war between the various gang factions that rule the city streets.
The story, such as it is, boils down to a beef — and a deliberately silly one at that, as we find out — between Mera (Ryōhei Suzuki, Gatchaman, My Love Story!!) the peroxide-blond leader of the (Ike)Bukuro Wu-ronz, and Kai (Young Dais), leader of the Musashino Saru gang. Kai and his crew just wanna hang out at a local diner and pump their sound systems in the parking lot; they're as likable and kids-next-door as Mera and his men are violent and sadistic. But Mera — the kind of guy who licks his swords after slicing someone's stomach open with them — wants the Sarus out of the picture, and to pull that off he's buddied up with Big Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), a leering Scarface-like gangster kingpin who chomps as eagerly on severed fingers as he does cigars.*
Buppa has a thing for snatching young girls off the street and adding them to his brothels, but that night one of the girls he rounds up, Sunmi (Nana Seino, the live-action Attack on Titan and Ouran High School Host Club) fights back, courtesy of a monkey-kung-fu slinging sidekick. She's nobody's sex toy — in fact, when she's first being "evaluated" for the job, she suggests that they rape her first, then kill her, then pimp her out. But she's also being used as a lure to bring some of the more gormless members of Kai's crew into a trap. They take the bait, but also fight their way out and take Sunmi with them ... and then we find out Sunmi is a lot more important than anyone realized, and the gang escalates to a whole new level of problematic.
What the movie works best at is setting a tone and delivering a spectacle, and that it is able to do that for two straight hours is impressive. I like it when a story gives us a wall-to-wall gallery of oddballs to fill out the edges of the screen, and Tokyo Tribe seems to have been custom-built around that concept. Consider the grandmother-behind-the-wheels-of-steel figure who's used as a bookend for scenes, or one of Buppa's girl servants who provides a beatbox soundtrack to everything she does. And the dialogue is just this side of Shakespearean in its determination to versify everything. (Kudos to the localizers, too: even the subtitles rhyme.)
Mile-wide and inch-deep
Where the movie falls down, though, is when it tries to tell a story instead of merely show us a ruckus, or give us characters rather than caricatures — in other words, do something other than be a spectacle. One of the debates I got into when preparing this article went like this: Isn't it unfair to blame a movie for not being something it was never intended? No, but it's not unfair to point out that what it tries to do comes at a cost, and part of that cost might have been a more entertaining film.
Some of this also stems from the way the movie's so eager to fill the screen with crazed visions, it forgets that not everything belongs there. When a rookie female cop tries to bust Mera for hustling drugs in his mixtapes, he rips her clothes off with a knife and uses her body as a map (and his knifepoint as a map-marker) to show where in Tokyo the various tribes hold court. A moment like this would be right at home in some 1970s "pinky violence" (girl-gang) film, clearly one of the many sources of inspiration for Tokyo Tribe. But this isn't a cheap little grindhouse flick; it's a big-budget production. Here, it comes off as saying more about what the filmmakers were willing to stick into the movie than it does anything about Mera, or the world he's in.
That's part of the risk taken on when creating a movie like this: the more compulsively you include bizarre things as a way of broadening the movie's palette, the greater the chances of including something jarring enough to be thoroughly derailing. Another element that falls into the same category is Buppa's son Nkoi (Yōsuke Kubozuka, of the live-action Ping Pong and GTO), a creep who wears his hair in braids and lounges around in a room decorated with human furniture. Your mileage will vary if he's merely meant to be another in the movie's gallery of weirdoes, or if the film is inadvertently making a case for him being evil because he's a pervert, which is not cool. Takashi Miike flirted with stuff like this in his movies, but somehow always managed to make the characters sympathetic or fascinating, not simply repellent fixtures.
Something else comes to mind that isn't meant to be a criticism of the movie per se, but a thought about how it uses its material. Many of the Japanese exploitation pictures of the 1970s, e.g., the Meiko Kaji/Stray Cat Rock series, used their lurid contents to make vulgar but cutting social commentary that more genteel, mainstream films of the time shied away from. Tribe isn't trying to make a statement about, say, the way Western urban culture incarnates itself in the lives of Japanese youth; it's using that and other material as set decoration and costuming. If I sound let down by that, it's only because I keep thinking a movie that did think about those things would have had that much more material at its disposal, and might well have been that much less repetitive, and that much more fun.
Other reviews I've read of Tokyo Tribe focus mostly on how bonkers it is, and how unrelenting in its urge to entertain. Or they've dismissed the movie as obnoxious garbage, an assemblage of things done better before or elsewhere. My take is somewhere in the middle. Existing fans of Sion Sono's work, people curious about how the manga was reinvented as a blowout spectacle, or people just looking for something wild and unhinged are all going to have a great time. I know I did, up to a point. But beyond that point I felt like the film was shortchanging itself for being so willfully dumb, and for including things I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of being entertained by. It's not easy being weird.
* Is Takeuchi contractually obliged to be incrementally weirder with each film he stars in? His role in Battle Royale II (2003) was mannered enough for five lifetimes; with Buppa, he plays him like every muscle in his body was cross-wired to the wrong input. Like anything else in the film, it's funny — for a while, anyway.