Tokyo Tribe

Tokyo Tribe ★★★★

There's quite a bit that I don't like about this movie, but...

Oh, how I love what it does right. I first came to Sion Sono's work with last year's gloriously insane Why Don't You Play in Hell? and have been meaning to check out his other work. When I heard about this film, which was a martial arts hip hop musical, I immediately became eager to see it, hoping that it would grace the heights of the inspired predecessor. To say the least, Sono is a man whose ambitions outweigh those of almost the entire American movie makers population. He doesn't know what excess is because he reinvents it every 10 minutes. He is a genius (at least in these two movies) whose work should be more recognized stateside.

In this case, I want to make a note of why I love this movie. It is essentially reinventing the musical with the most ingenuity since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. I am one who gets very picky on what constitutes a musical; choosing to believe that it only counts if the lyrics advance the plot. The fact is that the gimmick of rapping the plot works surprisingly well and the trade-off between its multiple characters is a thing to behold. The only real comparison point could be in your Wu Tang Clans, where the shifts are abrupt and stylish (with a wisecracking old lady DJ to spare). There's even women beat boxing and the overall style evolves into one singular force as the characters join to fight evil. The finale is a joyous farewell of misfits joining in unity through song. It's beautiful in a way.

Then there's arguably the more inventive thing. While it may not seem like it, I do think that Sono owes *some* credit to the Vincente Minnellis of the world as well. The dance numbers are actually stylish fight and chance sequences where everything is over the top and ridiculous. To look at the final battle between Tokyo Tribe and Waru is to recall that extended scene at the end of An American in Paris. It has a plot, but it's more mesmerizing because of its visual movement. Of course, Sono is less pretentious and more for in it for the kill. But he sure feels like he's doing a loving yet masochistic ode to classic musical cinema. There's so much that I love about this film on a structural level that I am willing to overlook what doesn't work.

What doesn't work? To be honest, I am not a big fan of soap opera culture, so the heightened sexuality at times wasn't as funny to me as it was supposed to be. As a white man unfamiliar with contemporary Japanese film, I am also confused on the depiction of gangster culture. It all feels transfused from America's rap history - especially in character design. Is that what actually happened, or is there a rich urban music culture that I'm not aware of. Also, the broad humor regarding the gangster culture also felt weird, as I feel like even if they were supposed to be taken seriously, some of those character designs have become a joke stateside (or was that the joke?).

But still, the surrealism and dedication to doing the most insane things imaginable is enough for me. It's not my favorite Sono film, but I do think it is a noteworthy entry in the evolution of the movie musical, as there's been little that's this insane in American cinema in at least a few decades.

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