The streets of Tokyo Tribe pulse with neon green and purple, giving an impression of a giant, never-ending party that’s been raging for so long that carelessly disposed trash lines every sidewalk. This Tokyo is a pleasure city designed for those who never emotionally aged past 17: all arcades, brothels, and strip clubs. Whenever the city’s denizens tire of these distractions, they pass time with cathartic displays of territorial gang violence. For good measure, everyone speaks in hip-hop rhymes, with tribe identities judged as much by matching outfits as rapping style.
The individuality of each gang propels much of the story, from the brutish, hoodied Shibuya tribe that toils in kitchen-sink conditions to the Nerimuthafuckaz, who look like they arrived in downtown Tokyo by way of Atlanta, sporting grills and jerseys and walking around to sleazy, fat-bottomed trap beats. Sion Sono ensures that no two locations look alike, delineating each tribe so that when they all eventually fall on each other the audience can easily differentiate between gangs. Often, the director forgoes character establishment simply to indulge his aesthetic whims, producing odd sights like a brothel corridor lined with pink balloons to resemble a vaginal canal.
Pop-culture geeks will have a field day spotting all the allusions and parodies cataloged by the director. The Warriors is an obvious jumping-off point for Sono, who even sets the film into motion with an old female DJ whose newsreel commentary and ad hoc soundtracking recall Lynne Thigpen’s groovy quasi-narrator from the Walter Hill classic. Elsewhere, there are fighters clad in samurai armor bedazzled with diamonds, a van with chandelier headlights straight out of Escape from New York. Meanwhile, a fortress belonging to the supreme overlord of the tribes, Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), looks like something Tony Montana might build if he came up as a coke lord after the apocalypse, a palatial home of gold surrounded by barren, dusty pits filled with punk fighters and flame-throwing madmen.
Sion Sono imagines gangs not as rebels without a cause, but a lost generation of displaced, poisoned youths.
So ridiculous and imaginative is the art direction and freewheeling tone that only halfway into Tokyo Tribe does Sono bother to introduce a narrative. That story concerns an attack led by the most powerful gangs against Musashino, the only one of Tokyo’s 23 tribes to put forward a message of peace and love. Endless, violent braggadocio comprises most of the characters’ lyrics, but the Musashino members’ lines are hilariously soft and corny, the kind of PSA-ready treacle one associates with the likes of Macklemore (“Hip-hop ain’t only dissing!” enthuses one tribemate). These tribe members are, by default, the good guys, but their dopey beta-male posturing is as much a caricature as Takeuchi’s cannibal Scarface, and the result of the film’s mordant irony is the satisfaction one derives from seeing them get slapped around a bit.
Still, this storyline feels too rigidly generic when stacked against Sono’s flourishes, so, for good measure, he also includes a subplot involving Sunmi (Nana Seino), a mysterious girl harassed by Buppa who turns out to be the daughter of the pitiless rap god who surveys the status quo of violence with grim amusement. Sono’s slack regard for the narrative makes these elements nothing more than setup for his experimentation, and more effort is put into the least of the gliding crane shots and cluttered sets than characterization.
Nonetheless, the director does tackle some of his social themes amid the stylistic frenzy. Though Tokyo Tribe is based on a manga series that ended in 2005, Sono recontextualizes the material around the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that’s played a role in many of the films he’s made in the last four years. Tremors occasionally grind the action to a halt and mark the only times that most of the characters betray any fear in their hardened countenances. This one tweak gives a sense of purpose to the film, imagining the gangs not as rebels without a cause, but a lost generation of displaced, poisoned youths.
There’s also, less seriously, a thorough parody of the anatomical insecurity that drives much of the film’s masculine aggression. This is hardly a new topic in cinema, but no other film on the subject has ever foregrounded it so directly with a rousing speech from hero to villain that concludes, “It’s not dick size, it’s the size of a man’s heart that makes him great.”