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In a futuristic Japan, territorial street gangs form opposing factions collectively known as the Tokyo Tribes. When one of the gang leaders breaks the fragile peace, it triggers a brutal street war for supremacy. (From XLrator Media’s official synopsis)

 Tokyo Tribe
Writer/director Sion (sometimes Shion) Sono began his career hidden among flamboyant filmmakers like Takashi Miike and Shinya Tsukamoto, during a wave of genre-driven, low-budget indies in the 1990s (while working as a writer, director, cinematographer, and even an actor on some occasions) before gaining a glimmer of worldwide recognition for Suicide Club (aka: Suicide Circle) in 2001. He followed up that success with an eclectic collection of sometimes surrealistic, often quirky, yet occasionally obscene genre-hopping features, including Noriko's Dinner Table, a two hour and forty minute prequel/sequel/’in-betweenquel’ to Suicide Club that explained and further convoluted its ‘mythology.’ Most recently, his diverse talent produced an award-winning serial killer bio-pic ( Cold Fish, 2010) and a weepy melodrama about the aftereffects of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami ( Land of Hope, 2012). Earlier this year, Sono’s subversive, over-the-top homage to the Yakuza and delinquent youth flicks of the past, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (literally translated title Why is Hell Bad? and original released in 2013), had a pretty successful festival run and home video release here in North America, so now we’re getting another dose of his wacky side – Tokyo Tribe.

Tokyo Tribe is the spiritual successor to Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. The two films share so much in terms of tone, style, and general filmmaking goals that I have to admit that I’m recycling a lot of the sentiment of that review here. The first thing that strikes me about Tokyo Tribe is that it is based on a popular manga comic (Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribe2). Foregoing the fact that it must be really hard to convey the sonic requirements of a hip-hop musical on a comic page, I have to say that I’m a really big fan of Japanese manga/anime adaptations. I guess I just have an affinity for the bizarre live-action cartoon visual tone, even though the films themselves tend to be overlong and boorishly self-indulgent. Once again, Sono’s choices remind me of Miike, who is something of a wizard of the subgenre (I count at least 15 official manga/anime adaptations in his filmography, as well as two movies based on video game, and two Zebraman movies that are made in the live-action anime tradition). Tokyo Tribe’s graphic violence, rape-happy villains, uncomfortable misogyny, and presence of actor Riki Takeuchi all draw strong comparisons to Miike’s earlier Yakuza movies (many of which were based on manga/anime).

 Tokyo Tribe
Sono approaches the material in an interesting way by shooting the ultra-fabricated, live-action cartoon production/costume design with handheld cameras. Much of the film is shot in long takes (the opening scene is a nearly five-minute tracking shot) with stationary lights and minimal editing in an attempt to capture spontaneous performances. The effect is sometimes off-putting (it hampers some of the martial arts action), but is uniquely Sono-esque and, at its best, has the effect of a filmed stage play or concert. Like Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Tokyo Tribe’s frantic pace, loose structure, excessive character count (admittedly, the extreme costumes and mannerisms makes it pretty easy to tell them apart), and unfathomably strange tone are hard to follow. The effort spent reading subtitles and surmounting cultural barriers makes it difficult to keep up with the already scattershot narrative all the more difficult. Unlike Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, I don’t think Tokyo Tribe has quite enough interesting content to justify its runtime. I found myself exhausted and relatively bored by the time the first hour rolled around and really can’t recommend the film to viewers that are more interested in storytelling and character beats. In fact, it’s hard to interpret more than the most basic elements of plot and what I could follow was pretty typical gang warfare stuff, draped in more outlandish set-pieces and random happenings. The real appeal is in the goofiness and the sheer scale of content. 116 minutes of almost constant lyrical storytelling, no matter how episodic and seemingly random, is a special achievement. And, in the end, the action-packed, super gory final 30 minutes are worth the occasional slog through chaotic content.

 Tokyo Tribe


Like Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Tokyo Tribe was shot using digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. Sono and cinematographer Daisuke Sôma implement all kinds of in-camera tricks to make the footage look strange and cartoonish, but probably the most consistent affectations are fuzzy, overamped lighting elements. Scene after scene features blooming whites and yellows that diffuse the objects around them. Coupled with shallow focus and some minor ghosting effects, this softens a lot of detail, specifically fine textures. The colours are eclectic and pushed really far at some points, but are also affected by the haze of diffusion, which can dull the overall effect, depending on location’s brightness levels. It’s probably important to note that the vast majority of the film seems to take place at night and that the roaming camerawork and image-distorting anamorphic lenses create black level inconsistencies. Really, ‘inconsistent’ is the best word to describe this transfer, because the image quality changes from set-to-set and sometimes even shot-to-shot. My assumption is that several different camera rigs were used, each with their own strengths and limitations. The on-again/off-again digital noise appears to be a part of the material, rather than the effect of Blu-ray compression.

 Tokyo Tribe


Tokyo Tribe is presented in Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound (there are no dubbed tracks). Obviously, music is the key aural component for a hip-hop musical. B.C.D.M.G.’s score is more or less a constant multi-channel assault. Even on the rare occasions that characters aren’t rapping, a beat and basic melody runs beneath the action and standard-issue dialogue. The music has a relatively consistent overall volume, but there are big bursts of loudness between songs, like when DJ Granny (I’m not sure what her name is – most of the characters don’t have names) scratches the record. LFE levels are bumpin’ and the channels are all engaged front to back. The only thing I found a little off-putting was the fact that so many of the snare drum effects were delegated to the left stereo speaker. The rapping itself is a mix of dubbed and set-recorded content, which itself is really impressive, but also means that volume and clarity can be a bit erratic. Other sound effects, like car engines, fireworks, earthquakes, sirens, gunfire, and the bloody impact of fisticuffs, are crisp and punchy.


The only extras are a trailer and trailers for other XLrator releases.

 Tokyo Tribe


Tokyo Tribe might be too much of a good thing and it’s off-the-wall attitude defeated me in the end. I’m still genuinely impressed by its technical achievements, really liked some of the music, and think that I’d get more out of the experience if I understood the Japanese language. This is definitely a case of literal translation getting in the way of comedy and wordplay (i.e. hip-hop rhyming simply can’t be moved from one language to another). XLrator’s Blu-ray release has some A/V shortcomings – chiefly inconsistent clarity in both image and sound – but I am almost positive that these are the result of filmmaking decisions, not bad mastering.

 Tokyo Tribe

 Tokyo Tribe
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.