Review: Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe

A group of people posing for the camera

The anarchy reigns in a near future Tokyo where several gangs fight against each others to take control of the city…


Sion Sono is an interesting and original Japanese figure, while he became known from Japanese film lovers with Suicide Club in 2001, it took him almost 10 years to reach the international scene. Cold Fish, from the gore label Sushi Typhoon, helped him reach the next level — the film had everything to attract an international (fan-based) audience, the gory scenes, the craziness, the Sion Sono’s anarchic touch. Since then, his films have been selected in various international film festivals, while getting better theatrical distribution in Japan (Tokyo Tribe was released in 120 theaters) — and getting bigger budgets as well. Still, Sion Sono stays the same, with his punk and excessive spirit.

And in the current Japanese film industry where live action adaptations of mangas are becoming the norm, here comes Sion Sono with his Tokyo Tribe adaptation. Bringing some piece of chaos right in the middle of an industry filled with tasteless, uncinematic and soapy products that have absolutely no consideration for its audience.

Tokyo Tribe could have easily been just another Crows Zero film, with the gangs, the young nice actors, the fights, the trashy world… Hopefully, Tokyo Tribe takes another direction, far more interesting. The main concept behind the film is quite surprising and original, it’s a rap musical, inviting us to discover the (underground) culture of hip hop — the subject has been seen only few times in Japanese films in recent years, one of the few examples to come in mind? The mockumentary series 8000 Miles. So, don’t expect any J-pop crap, no lovely idol… Enjoy the loud and violent bass!



On this weird project, Sion Sono is working again with producer Yoshinori Chiba (Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance). Here, both men have one of the highest budgets of their lives so far, and the chance to be working with great people who know how to bring this trashy Tokyo to life!


The poster reflecting the chaotic nature of the film!

At the production design, there’s Yuji Hayashida, the name may not ring a bell, yet you may very well know his works — via Takashi Miike, films like Crows Zero, Over Your Dead Body… — Hayashida seems to be having some fun, pushing ideas as far as he can get — the permanent trashy look, the colors, the tags, the craziness, so many details to enjoy! Behind the camera, there’s cinematographer Daisuke Soma (Helter Skelter) working on big budgets & gory indie films with no problem. With Tokyo Tribe, he can enjoy a visually rich environment while shooting with this “indie” spirit: being economical, keeping things spontaneous — many scenes were shot with a steadicam, implying long takes and improvisation from the actors !


These economical approach also comes from Sion Sono himself, and his days as an indie filmmaker with no budget. What does it mean? Here, the director went looking for street artists — from tattoo to rap — instead of hiring just another boring Japanese idols. Not only Sion Sono wants to discover new talents, but he’s also using most of his budget to build the world of Tokyo Tribe, to make it as crazy as possible.


The note — Larger version

Tokyo Tribe shines in its excess. Introduced by Sion Sono as pure entertainment, the film is real whirlwind of colors, ideas and visual details appearing in every directions… The film is quite a departure from Sono’s few previous serious projects, which were about delivering serious messages about the actual state of Japan. These projects weren’t completely convincing, Sono was tackling hot & sensitive issues — like the 11/3 earthquake, only few months / weeks after the actual event! Good intentions, difficult subject, with a kind of formal, flat execution. That was Boring Sion Sono.


Here, it’s Chaos Sion Sono. His usual hysteria & chaotic mess appears through this gang war as 90% of the film is rap music. The film has almost no silence, it becomes an exhausting experience as there’s always loud bass in the background, which seems to replace the usual Sono-esque character shooting his lines — in his previous films. It’s not surprising to learn that Sono wrote a short note to the projectionists in Japan, saying “sound is everything for this movie, so crank it up!


Excess is everywhere, including the characters. The world of Tokyo Tribe is made of several gangs, each one having its one special thing — motto, wearing, style of rapping. It sounds promising during the introduction, but quickly, the film is focusing on two main gangs, the other are present though — they don’t have any real narrative use. Despite this choice, it doesn’t help the story to be clearer, or efficient. Because even with only two gangs, lots of characters seem to be left unexplored — Big Buppa’s family.

Trash and completely fine with that — the phallic obsession, to stay polite — featuring weird & funny ideas — the beatbox servant, the slaves-furnitures — Tokyo Tribe feels most of the time like a series of short scenes instead of having one big story that connects dots together. Some plot elements can pop up from time to time, still not enough to be fully interesting. The gang war becomes more of a pretext to create this huge hip-hop chaos, while the concept of musical is used with so much excess it becomes exhausting. Like a never-ending music video, with some pace issues.



Going in every directions, this quest of power in the middle of a futuristic Tokyo also reveals some ideas for hope, it sounds naive and touching — as usual coming from Sion Sono, it can be vulgar, violent… and finally delivering something from the heart.

Unperfect, clumsy, messy, Tokyo Tribe is an intriguing strange project in the middle of the Japanese film industry, some kind of mix between The Warriors, West Side Story & Shuji Terayama. The very idea that this film can exist, with its originality, his craziness, seems so out of place & rare that it completely deserves your attention. Coming from an inspired, free, excessive Sion Sono.

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