By Bill Arceneaux
More than any other film in recent memory, Tokyo Tribe has the most convoluted careless plot. Now, I’ve been watching Michael Bay’s Trans4mers almost on a loop as of late – research for a defense piece – but for that movie’s unnecessary complexity, it was at least somewhat easy to follow. There are so many moving parts to Tribe that one must be a sensei level product of hyper-fueled MTV generation to understand its story in full.
And yet, it’s not much of a problem at all. It would be if only the movie cared about your feelings. If anything, this experiment in a most loosed and lucid plot only improves the conceptual framework it hangs from. That being the rap opera.
Tribe is billed, more or less, as a musical, but it’s more than that. Instead of vignettes of song, it’s just about ALL song. Characters speak in hip-hop verse and lyricize with one another the entire time. In a musical, song breaks out when emotions run high. In this opera, emotions are always high; thus song IS the conversation. It’s impressive how the filmmakers and actors keep the energy at such heightened levels, all the while telling what story it has – and it’s a crazy one.
At its base, it’s a tale of rival gangs in a dystopic future Tokyo, forced to join up and battle to keep life as it is. Each gang, or tribe, has its distinct rap signatures, outfits and attitudes. They’re all outlandish, in your face, ride or die, not giving a f###. At its most bonkers, it’s about an Elvis-looking, Scarface-loving villain who is ordered by a figure that comes out of a flashlight to find a lost girl for sacrifice. Oh, and he and his family are lunatic cannibals.
I would be angry about such wackiness getting in the way of my comprehension if the overall atmosphere and tone weren’t so exaggerated.
Sion Sono, the director of last year’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a wonderful ode to youthful ambition and making films on film, is as irreverent as ever with Tribe. There are brilliant editorial and stylistic divergences and techniques utilized straight out of the Natural Born Killers and F For Fake playbooks. These keep the pace running swiftly, so much so that its ADD behavior and focus eases well into our minds. We follow its rhythm beat for beat, and eventually, perhaps on a deeper level, can reconcile the insanity.
Sometimes, what we hear and feel inform better than what we see.
To what end is Tokyo Tribe getting at? Who is it meant for, what is it trying to say and why? I worry that the cultural divide may be greater than expected. I also worry that its satire may be too rich for me to grasp. But what concerns me most is that there may not be anything more to it after all. It might just be something that exists for the sake of existing. Something too weird not to be told. No matter what, it stands as refreshingly itself and perfectly ok with that fact. An identity crisis this movie does not have. Why should we have a problem with that?
3 / 5 *s – on VOD streaming now.