Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe is “a gleefully ludicrous, all-gold-everything rap musical whose many virtues do not include nuance,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Most of the movies I’ve seen at TIFF have been in 2.35 widescreen, though Tokyo Tribe manages to pack more into that frame than seems feasible: outlandish costumes and sets (including a Scarface-style globe inscribed with ‘Fuck Da World’ and a car so posh, it has chandeliers for headlights); garish color schemes and massive, star-filtered lens flares; crowds fighting, dancing, and fight-dancing. Throw in some consistently silly dialogue (‘It ain’t dick size—it’s the size of a man’s heart that makes him great!’), a rabid performance from onetime Takashi Miike regular Riki Takeuchi as the wallpaper-suited heavy, and a Warriors knock-off plot, and you have the ingredients for an often fun, thoroughly brainless movie; the fact that most of the actors can’t rap worth shit is part of the appeal.”
“Sono’s nocturnal, studio-bound gangland rapping extravaganza, with its long takes, glimmering colors, and relentlessly unflagging energy connects lines from Love Me Tonight through Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Streets of Fire, Takashi Miike’s own recent brawling high school musical For Love’s Sake and the Step Up movies,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. It’s got “more moment by moment glee (another reference) than no doubt any film at TIFF. But caveats must be made…. Tokyo Tribe’s full throttle attack on the senses while exuberant goes too far and draws out its own thin story like taffy, revealing how its antecedents did some of the same things better by channeling creativity rather than fragmenting it.”
“It’s Jacques Demy on cough syrup and cheap molly, with light bleeding in and out of the visible spectrum and heart-stopping basslines forever thumping away,” writes Jake Cole at the House Next Door. “Sono has branched out into more placid, issue-oriented filmmaking in the wake of Fukushima, but taken with last year’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, this is a return to the freewheeling, uninhibited stylist, wherein one heinous mafioso’s lair cribs from Thulsa Doom for its exterior, Tony Montana for its interior, and the orgy rooms of Eyes Wide Shut for its hidden, carnal chambers…. Of the films I’ve seen so far at TIFF, only Godard‘s Goodbye to Language can be said to be more aesthetically overwhelming.”
“Neo-Tokyo is about to explode,” writes David Ehrlich, setting the stage at Little White Lies. “In an alternate near future, Japan’s capital megalopolis is a massive turf war being fought over by 23 different gangs of homicidal young hip-hop enthusiasts (the battle lines are helpfully mapped on the naked chest of a female cop). Over the next 12 hours—the narrator [Shota Sometani] informs us in rhyme—the city is going to erupt in violence, as one of the tribes kidnaps the daughter of a foreign rap lord, whose monstrous underlings will raze every prefecture to the ground in order to get her back. At heart, however, the film is ultimately a heartrending story of impossible love.”
“I’ve seen Tokyo Tribe numerous times, as I was responsible for creating the English subtitles, so I’m hardly objective about it,” wrote Don Brown in the Asahi Shimbun last month. “As he rather jokingly described it himself, [Sono’s] aim was to make a movie that could be enjoyed even by viewers as prim and proper as the family in the venerable ‘Sazae-san’ animated TV series, presumably with the aid of large quantities of beer and popcorn…. Sono also shows he hasn’t lost his eye for picking promising young actresses with the choice of Nana Seino for the feisty damsel-in-distress Sunmi. Her impressive martial arts chops are given full reign, as are those of future action star Joey as the amazing whirling dervish-like interpreter Kamekichi.”
“It’s perhaps ironic that the better, more intriguing effort from Sono about gangland confrontation is actually Bad Film, a no-budget, sprawling 166-minute piece he finally conjured from the 500-plus-hour footage he shot (with his then theatrical troupe Tokyo Gagaga and hundreds of non-professionals) in 1995,” suggests Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter. “Tokyo Tribe is of course much more bling-fueled…, but it offers more pomp and fantasy than a genuine surprise.”
For Variety‘s Dennis Harvey, this one’s “so insistently over-the-top from the start that the results are just fairly amusing when they ought to be exhilarating.” But at Twitch, Jaime Grijalba Gomez declares: “Right now Tokyo Tribe is my choice for the best movie of 2014.” Four out of five stars from Ben Nicholson at CineVue.
Update, 9/10: Its “essential thrills notwithstanding, it becomes off-putting in how one must struggle to keep up with the film throughout—not just in the narrative terms of story and character, but also its extreme formalism,” finds Ethan Vestby at the Film Stage.
Updates, 9/14: John Anderson for Indiewire: “Sono apparently cast the film with real-life tattoo artists, rappers, dancers and Riki Takeuchi—whose evil Buppa is the big kahuna of Tokyo crime, a debauched, diseased sadist who rules over the varying fiefdoms with an iron hand. Sono executes everything on sets crowded with street kids, hookers, homeless, the demented and the strange, against backdrops that range from chaotic pastel slums to the executive suites of tribal gangsters, to the private salons of Buppa’s son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), where near-naked slaves are used as furniture. Sono may have based his film on Santa Inoue’s manga, but Pasolini’s Salo is never very far away.”
At In Review Online, Kenji Fujishima suggests that “while one can certainly derive plentiful enjoyment by simply basking in the nuttiness, there is still a sneaky intelligence to be glimpsed throughout Tokyo Tribe. Note, for instance, the palpable weariness with which Shota Sometani’s MC delivers his gobs of rap exposition in its opening moments—a strangely poignant reflection of the ennui that has overtaken this junkyard future-Tokyo. And of course, Sono’s operatic emotional intensity is still very much present—no more so than in its big blow-out finish, which climaxes in a final confrontation that not only reveals the villains’ ultimately petty motivations (it’s all about dick fear), but also yet again confirms Sono’s continuing guiding belief in the triumphant power of love.”
Update, 10/11: For Adam Batty, “it is just too long. It feels a little off to criticize the film for being indulgently cut and praise it for being ambitious within one sentence of another, but that’s what I’m about to do. The film displays an ambition that’s difficult to not admire, especially when the director is working with an efficiency that would make Dame Barbara Cartland look tardy. Sono is a prolific, distinctive filmmaker, and while his work may divide, film culture is undoubtably all the richer for it existing at all.”