There is something very refreshing about the way many East Asian directors approach genre in film. While Western film makers often have a very rigid, stubborn idea of the one genre film, many Japanese and South Korean film makers seem to play around with the concept. I think back to Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka as an articulate example of this; a family drama-cum road movie- cum serial killer thriller. Bringing such disparate genres together, melding and splicing them, brings the chance of new tones and feelings that a staid singular genre film cannot reach. Of course it doesn’t always work out, but isn’t there a beauty in the risk of glorious failure?
Which brings us to Shion Sono’s latest oddball extravaganza, Tokyo Tribe. Sono has a reputation as a cult director of dizzying invention and offbeat ideas. So I’ll throw this one out there and you try and catch it: Gaspar Noe directs a remake of The Warriors as if it was a sci-fi hip hop musical. Voila. Based on a series of manga books, we are thrown into an alternate Tokyo where the city is ruled by street gangs. The head honcho of the city Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) decides he wants to eradicate all the other gangs, initiating an all-out street war. A comically bullish and horny thug, he enlists the help of the peroxide-haired psychopath Mera (Ryohei Suzuki) to carry out his ruthless plans.
Fighting the good fight are the plucky Musashino clan, a wholesome street gang who preach peace and love. They enlist all the other city gangs in order to unite against the Buppa Town posse and save the city. In all honesty, there are a dizzying array of characters and plot threads to tend to; Sono has a gung ho, all-or-nothing approach to film making. As this is a hip hop musical, each character communicates in a stream-of-consciousness rap, backed by heavy, relentless beats and hazy synths.
It has the feel of an extended music video, but it never becomes tiring. The film is splattered with odd, surreal touches; a beatboxing maid had the audience tittering and bewildered.A gangster’s son has created his own art gallery of sculptures using people he has captured off the street. An ancient granny provides ominous interlude warnings as the resident DJ and MC. It is relentless in its mind boggling invention and desire to thrill. The music is joyously brassy and obnoxious, with Sono leaving restraint at the door. Sono films with a marauding handheld camera reminiscent of Noe’s Enter the Void, the city streets gleaming in neon lights and rain spattering down constantly.
Unfortunately the film sags a little in the third act as the wave after wave of street battles commence. This was never a film to go for half measures, but the initially exciting fight scenes become a little tiresome after the 333rd karate kick. The film works much better when it is more focused on the music and the attitude of the gangs, the ridiculous ceremony and ego boosting of hip hop. The ending, however, is only a minor bum note in the outrageously entertaining, invigorating, absurd circus that is Tokyo Tribe.