Andrew Osmond on a rap musical, in Japanese. Yes. Thank you. You’re welcome.
Represent! The live-action film of Akira is here… and it’s a rap musical! Okay, we’re kidding, but Tokyo Tribe takes place in a violent fantasy Tokyo of warring gangs, hence the film’s name. It’s based on a manga strip and takes a manically cartoonish approach to its material. Oh, and it’s directed by Sion Sono, a legitimate madman of Japanese cinema, best known in Britain for his four hour – yes, four hour – comedy Love Exposure, about religion and perversion.
Tokyo Tribe really is a rap musical, with only occasional ‘straight’ dialogue, and just about everyone rapping their way through the action – the best is a groovy granny with a talent for record scratching and lyrics like ‘Coming to ya straight from the ass-end of hell!” Interviewed by Sci-Fi Japan, Sono explained the film was about street life, so “I thought it would be more interesting to bring out people from the streets. I looked for rappers in the streets. Then I decided that if I was going to have rappers, it would be better to make them sing.”
Rap and specifically hip hop have a history in Japan spanning thirty years – Wikipedia has a long entry. However, it’s figured only sporadically in the films and anime that have reached Britain. Shinichiro Watanabe paid extensive tribute to hip hop in his period mashup Samurai Champloo, and Rip Slyme defined the spikiness of the horror-action anime Gantz with its title song, “Super Shooter.” A mellower number, “Climbing the Stairs of Quiet Days,” by the group Dragon Ash, played out the film of Battle Royale. Tokyo Tribe’s music is supplied by BCDMG – that’s Big Crow Dog Music Group, a rapper collective.
Sono’s film is set in a Tokyo where the well-known districts – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro – have become bases for gangs drunk on power and violence, with names to match. For example, the Nerima district now hosts the Nerimanotherf******. The good guys are a hedonistic but peaceful bunch of youngsters in Musashino, a less central city district (and the setting for Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent). However, several of these kids get yanked into a honey-trap by their enemies. During the battle, hero Kai – played by Young Dais, an experienced rapper and neophyte actor – runs into an acrobatic fighting girl called Sunni (Nana Seino), who was kidnapped off the streets just before. But in the way of fantasy fighting girls, there’s more to Sunni than that.
The film plays like a splattery music video, even a pantomime – there’s a jokey reference to Kill Bill in the script, but Tokyo Tribe is several notches crazier. The film was largely set-bound; some scenes were shot in factories, festooned with neon and graffiti. There are topical nods – a gaudy gang lair bears a suspicious resemblance to Kabukicho’s rambunctious ‘Robot Restaurant,’ which we wrote up here. There’s gore, fighting and fanservice – the latter pair go together in the case of Seino’s high-kicking character– with the action compacted into one night and an endless battle at sunrise.
As for the gang set-up, reviewers have compared to the film to a vintage Walter Hill pic, The Warriors(1979), which visualised New York in much the same way without the rap. (Last year’s teen-friendly film Divergent, from the YA novels by Veronica Roth, also had a comparable set-up.) In Japan, Akira is the obvious precedent, though the world of Sono’s film was created in a different manga, Tokyo Tribe by Santa Inoue. It was then expanded in a much longer sequel Tokyo Tribes (aka Tokyo Tribe 2), from which the film’s characters come. The sequel was also animated by the Madhouse studio in 2006.
Of the performers, the most recognisable are the two monster bad guys. Ryohei Suzuki plays the blond mobster Mera, oiled and strutting in a posing pouch, adding an air of Rocky Horror Picture Show. You’re likeliest to have seen Suzuki in HK: Hentai Kamen, where he was also memorably attired, wearing women’s underwear on his face as a mask!
Amazingly though, Suzuki is out-monstered in Tokyo Tribe by Riki Takeuchi, a legend of yakuza cinema who headlined Takashi Miike’s film Dead or Alive. You may have seen him in Battle Royale II: Requiem, where he chewed that disappointing sequel up as the new psycho-teacher (called, er, Riki Takeuchi). In Tokyo Tribe, he takes the grotesquerie up to eleven; his best friend is a dildo (literally), his banquets consist of human meat, and frankly his face is awful enough.
One other face you may recognise is Shota Sometani, or Mr Rinko Kikuchi – he married the Pacific Rim star last December. Sometani played the lead in Shion Sono’s lurid but earnest abused-teen drama Himizu, and in Tokyo Tribes he has the job of MC/narrator, rapping the story in a disaffected monotone and a hoodie. Admittedly Sometani’s rapping hasn’t drawn an ecstatic response from reviewers, especially when he’s surrounded by industry pros.
But hey, this is a Sono film - what did you expect, sanity? The director’s already got two new films coming out in Japan this year, including Love and Peace, about a salaryman and a magic turtle. Check out the trailer here…
Tokyo Tribe is showing at the Derby film festival on 7th May, and will be released in select UK cinemas on 22nd May. A DVD from Eureka Entertainment follows in June.
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