“If you ain’t ready to die/You can’t survive.
Is there any point in praying?/Is there a price to living?”
In his immaculate dining room the corpulent, cannibalistic Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) holds court. By his side, his son Nkoi (Yôsuke Kubozuka) greedily surveys the “new arrivals;” young women pulled off the street. Some will end up on the table before them. Others will become inhabitants of his personal chambers, a bizarro fever dream of Alex DeLarge’s basement courtesy of David Lynch: vibrant red rooms filled with floury-white naked human furniture. As his father greedily chews on finger-cigars, one of his lieutenants, the towering Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki), declares war on the various gangs ruling the streets collectively known as Tokyo Tribe. Harboring a hateful vendetta against Kai (Young Dais), one of the main members of the peace-loving Musashino crew, he convinces Buppa to declare all-out war against the divided Tokyo Tribe. As the blood flows and the limbs fly, the disparate gangs realize that they must join together or perish.
From this brief synopsis, one could probably guess that Shion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (2014) plays like an off-the-wall explosion of energy and action. But one probably wouldn’t guess that it was also a hip-hop musical. Even more shocking for Western viewers unfamiliar with hip-hop from outside the Anglosphere would be the realization that both the rapping and the film itself work instead of collapsing into a mush of cultural appropriation and gaudy African-American stereotypes.
To be sure, many elements of Tokyo Tribe borrow wholesale from urban American culture: English loan-words pepper the songs; street hustlers advertise mix-tapes full of “fresh New York sh!t”; the phrase “F—K THE WORLD can be found everywhere from street graffiti to gaudy interior decorations. In a delightfully subtle touch, the police cars have no Japanese writing on them, instead having all of their identification information written in English. I don’t see cultural thievery at play here, I see earnest homage. And for those who still think that the Japanese don’t have any right to adopt American hip-hop culture, I would remind them that when the Wu-Tang Clan did the opposite and incorporated East Asian culture into their imagery and style they were heralded as innovators.
But regardless, Tokyo Tribe plays as a gleeful, explosive phantasm of color and energy. The production clearly spent almost all of their money on the set design and costumes since the last act features many cringe-worthy CGI special effects such as a massive wind-turbine that sucks its victims in to be shredded into a fine red mist. But I can overlook the CGI because, unexpectedly, it almost compliments the madcap tone of the fight scenes and narrative. Besides, I found the multiple scenes involving sexual assault—this IS a Nikkatsu film, after all—more jarring than the phoned-in effects. For all its insanity, Tokyo Tribe does contain a message: hip-hop can be about peace and togetherness instead of crime and violence.