Thursday, February 25, 2016


This manga-inspired hip-hop martial-arts musical looks like Sion Sono's tribute to Walter Hill, the auteur of The Warriors and Streets of Fire. In a vaguely fantastic Japan gangs control much of Tokyo in an uneasy equilibrium constantly threatened by the most belligerent, decadent and just plain insane gang led by Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his vassals -- or are they his sons? Mera (Ryohei Suzuki) is a buff narcissist obsessed with eliminating any man who might have a larger penis than his. Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) is more of a degenerate, dedicated to decorating his quarters with living human furniture. Buppa himself acts more like a hornier homage to Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice from Dick Tracy than anything Walter Hill ever dreamed up. Buppa loves his blowjobs but is equally entertained, it seems, by jacking off a black dildo. He's more or less the godfather hereabouts, but even he answers to a mysterious high priest who communicates via hologram that his intended virgin sacrifice -- his own daughter, it turns out -- has run away. It turns out that Buppa's crew had her (Nana Seino) in their clutches not long before without knowing it, and knowing her intended fate explains why she had dared Mera to "rape away" while she was in his power. Anyway, she and her street-urchin sidekick, both karate experts, break out, and her escape proves the spark to all out war among the Tokyo tribes. Buppa literally has a gang called Waru he can summon to fight his battles, but while they make a menacing show early on they fold quickly under a combined assault of the other tribes -- all more or less good guys and far less entertaining than the bad guys -- who then besiege Buppa's fortress to end his reign of terror....

Tokyo Tribe aspires to epic sleaziness and often hits the mark. The tone is set early when a rookie female cop naively attempts to bust Mera for dealing drugs on a rainy night. The showdown ends with extended scenes of Mera groping the rookie's exposed boobs as she moans in a manner not entirely intended by Sion Sono to inspire empathy with her plight. This is a director whose main concern during the fight scenes seems to be that we get a clear shot of the heroine's white panties whenever she throws a kick. Sion Sono is well known to cult movie buffs as one of Japan's top cinematic provocateurs, and in that capacity he doesn't disappoint. For all I know, his conception of a Japanese gangsta rap movie may be a provocation unto itself. I can't judge the quality of the rapping, of course, because I don't know Japanese and I don't really know hip-hop, but there's an audacity to the mere attempt that impressed me.

As a hip-hop movie, Tokyo Tribe tries to have things both ways, clearly relishing the power fantasies represented by the bad guys but preaching at the end against the lust for power. The problem with its late attempt at moralizing is the usual one with pop action films, which is that the villains are so much more entertaining than the heroes, whose desire to just have fun just isn't as much fun. More imagination -- on film if not in the original manga -- has gone into Buppa and his entourage, down to a female minion who acts as his herald and praise-singer in human-beatbox fashion, only to make a quick-change into an iconic yellow tracksuit during the final battle. "Kill Bill, eh?" her opponent asks. "No, I'm Bruce!" she replies before cracking his skull with her nunchakus and giving with Mr. Lee's characteristic caterwauling. For all this, you can see Sion Sono growing bored with his toys. While you expect epic defeats or deaths for all the main bad guys, Nkoi, as if bored himself, simply turns on a secret death machine, a giant fan that sucks most of the villains into its blades and turns them into CGI splashes. Buppa himself dies (as does "Bruce") in this ignominious fashion, leaving Mera the last villain standing for a climactic fight with a quite less charismatic (but, as we learn in an epilogue, much better endowed) hero. At least Buppa got in some decent gatling-gun action before his abrupt exit. It seems fair to sum up Tokyo Tribe as a mess, but it's sometimes a gorgeous, hot mess and more entertaining overall than not. It's definitely a singular Japanese movie experience; at least it's hard to believe there could be two of these.

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