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Cultural Inappropriation

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BFI Film Festival 2014

MOVIE REVIEW
Tokyo Tribe (2014)

Erstwhile purveyor of inventive Japanese fare Sion Sono follows up his subversive 2013 picture “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” with yet another dollop of ludicrous cinema. “Tokyo Tribe” is a manga-inspired world of hip-hop gangsters and comic-book villains; grimy, corrupt and fueled by blood, money and women. Mr. Sono’s vision is singular; and his highly stylized tale plays out as a hip-hop musical number, a trope that is as deliriously mad as it sounds: think “The Warriors” meets “West Side Story” with a dash of “Sin City” thrown in for good measure.

The near future world of “Tokyo Tribe” is a rain-soaked, neon-infused nightmare, a city divided by gang warfare. Mr. Sono thrusts us headlong onto these mean streets, gleefully laying out the context of the nature of the division of Tokyo’s neighborhoods via an incredible sweeping pan shot through the rooftops and gutters before landing on a swift cartography lesson on the heaving bare chest of a female copper. It’s a crass and brash introduction, accompanied by pulsating hip-hop beats and rhymes; and there’s little let up from here on in.

The crux of the narrative centers on the escalation of tensions between rival factions the Musashino Saru, headed up by the our hero Tera (Ryuta Sato) and the Wu-Ronz, led by the outlandish Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), kin of the villainous Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), a grotesque monster of a mobster. Mr. Sono ostensibly takes us on a one-night sojourn into the depths, as scores are settled, alliances forged and blood liberally shed. It’s a veritable assault on the senses, a frenetic and relentless ride that verges on the theatrical at times.

Mr. Sono’s brilliantly imagined players and immaculately constructed world make for a thoroughly engaging and immersive experience that continues to surprise throughout. Just as the hip-hop narrative becomes familiar, Mr. Sono introduces another character more preposterous than the last; step forward the utterly delightful beat-boxing maid. Tonally, it’s a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek critique of the misogyny that seemingly blights the hip-hop world. Here, women aren’t just objectified, they’re turned into human furniture.

And while some might level those very charges of misogyny against Mr. Sono himself, that would ignore the fact that “Tokyo Tribe” boasts an incredibly strong female lead in Hitomi Katayama, not to mention an all-female gang who more than hold their own against their male counterparts.

“Tokyo Tribe” is a wildly ambitious punt; and while not everything works (some editing might not have gone amiss), Mr. Sono’s visually stunning pulpy world — delectably populated with cartoonish crooks and hoods — is so rich, fiercely original and unashamedly over the top that there’s so much to enjoy here. On this bonkers vein of form, Mr. Sono’s next feature “Shinjuku Swan” is definitely one to keep an eye on.

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