Territorial gangs in Tokyo fight a violent turf war for supremacy as told in catchy raps
Edgy Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono gives us Tokyo Tribe, a crazy Japanese Rap musical. Based off a popular manga by Santa Inoue, this movie is directly inspired by American Rap music videos popular in the 1990s. Thrown into the blender are scantily clad women, slapstick martial arts, and Japanese thugs that rap their way through the entire film. It stars Shôko Nakagawa, Akihiro Kitamura, Denden, Ryûta Satô, and Nana Seino.
You’ll know ten minutes into this movie if you will love it or want to walk away. Tokyo Tribe is probably not made for all audiences with its nods to dated cultural Hip Hop trends. Featuring a cadre of top Japanese rappers, most of the film is told in rap verse to classic sounding hip hop beats.
The Japanese Rap scene has been thriving for years, heavily influenced by American Hip Hop dating back to the 80s and 90s. Much of it has been influenced by American Rap music videos seen by Japanese fans back in the day. So while the American Rap scene has moved on from those Nineties’ music videos of Snoop Dogg and the Wu Tang Clan, they form much of the basis for Rap in Japan today. This is a hardcore East Coast Hip Hop sound familiar to “heads” going back twenty years. Think Nas and Biggie for comparison.
At the heart of Tokyo Tribe is Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s most thriving cultural centers and also one of its most unique. Known by locals as Bukuro in this near future, a street gang called the Wu-Ronz led by Mera run things. The Wu-Ronz are but one of several competing tribes battling for dominance. The others include the Shibuya Saru, the Shinjuku Hands, Nerima, and Musashino. Each tribe battles for turf with their rhyme skills. Each tribe is heavily influenced by a certain Hip Hop sound, including the laid-back, true school sound of Musashino.
The opening scenes are little more than elaborate music videos introducing the rival gangs in memorable fashion. It’s an electric first act for Sion Sono as he turns the film into an extended music video. All the cliches seen in older Rap music videos are given a nod, from the macho posturing to young women running around half naked.
There is a continuing plot of some kind in Tokyo Tribe revolving around a young girl named Sunmi and her younger brother, Yon. She gets kidnapped by the local crime boss, a sadistic gangster by the name of Buppa. Buppa takes women off the street and turns them into prostitutes. That is about as much of the story as you need to know. It’s such a loose thread that Tokyo Tribe is as much about style as it is telling this story. The film mostly revolves around showcasing the rapping skills of its warring tribes. If one thing hurts the pacing, Tokyo Tribe’s narrative takes a while to get where it is going. For nearly an hour it is almost impossible to guess where things are headed and feels like unnecessary set-up.
Some of the set design is truly inspired and wildly creative.
Some of the set design is truly inspired and wildly creative.
Sono makes Tokyo Tribe one of the more visually dynamic Japanese films to come along in some time. Some of the set design is truly inspired and wildly creative. The manga influence comes immediately to mind with its wild splashes of color and outrageous set design. Expect an array of different settings, including a room with naked, living human furniture. There is a distinctly slapstick element to the actual fighting. The young actor that plays Yon does a fantastic job with his martial art stunts, moving in a fluid Parkour style as he attempts to rescue Sunmi.
I think Tokyo Tribe might be interesting for Westerners into older American Hip Hop but everyone else is probably warned to stay away. Cultural shock is one term I would have to apply in this case. This is a cult film made for a specific niche audience. Definitely made for its Japanese audience in both style and tone, it is an eclectic piece of musical storytelling that overwhelms the senses. I enjoyed Tokyo Tribe but this is polarizing entertainment made for those familiar with the rhythms of modern Japanese culture.
XLRator Media provides a solid video presentation for Sono’s wildly colorful film limited by the film’s actual source. Tokyo Tribe runs the gamut of the full spectrum, featuring scenes bathed in red, amber and other atypical lighting patterns. There is so much visually going on in each frame that it pays to watch the background.
The main feature runs 116 minutes on a BD-25. It is presented in its original scope aspect ratio at 2.40:1. The AVC video encode does a surprisingly capable job averaging only 19.50 Mbps. Possibly fine-tuned by hand, it easily handles the wide color palette without noticeable chroma noise or banding.
Tokyo Tribe features solid definition and clarity without being the sharpest possible video. The intensely lit scenes are bright but slightly dull in ultimate resolution, fairly common to other Japanese films brought over to the States.
The glossy music video cinematography looks nice but doesn’t hold up particularly well under videophile inspection. Its contrast is slightly inconsistent with faintly blooming white levels. Like some other Japanese films, the IRE levels are possibly off in specific scenes. Shadow delineation is mostly decent but black levels occasionally turn milky.
Strictly going by its aesthetics, Tokyo Tribe is a visual stunner made to look like an old school music video. But the actual video quality is fairly average for Blu-ray, limited by budgetary considerations.
Tokyo Tribe offers a decent 5.1 Japanese DTS-HD MA soundtrack that relies on its big Hip Hop beats. The audio mix is fairly limited in its use of surround channels, which is common in Japanese films. The Japanese market isn’t a big supporter of surround sound. The sound-stage is front heavy with tight bass.
The rapping comes through in perfect clarity. It was my impression that most of the rapping was delivered a little more clearly and slowly than normal so non-Rap viewers would understand everything. Everything is still in Japanese with the occasional English word thrown in, so most Americans will be reading the English subtitles.
The English subtitles are forced to play with the movie, so those fluent in Japanese will have to put up with them. They display in a white font inside the scope framing at all times. Offering my inexperienced opinion on the English translation, it’s a solid effort that fully conveys the Japanese intent. Optional English SDH subtitles play in a white font outside the scope framing. Those can be turned off.
Theatrical Trailer (01:50 in HD)
Trailers (05:42 in HD) – Close Range, Wrecker, Two Rabbits (Two Birds)
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process. (ed note: This movie is quite kinetic and getting screen shots without visible motion blur was difficult to impossible in most situations.)