I hate musicals. Both the stage kind and the movie kind. I always have and I never once thought I’d ever see one that I’d enjoy, so when the Japan Foundation sent us a screener copy of “Tokyo Tribe” which is playing for a limited time as part of their 2014 Japanese Film Festival lineup you can probably imagine how underwhelmed I was by it. That was only because I knew nothing about this movie apart from that it has a great deal of singing.
What I didn’t know about it was that it isn’t exactly singing that takes the spotlight in “Tokyo Tribe”…it’s rapping and it’s freaking awesome. Set in an alternate Tokyo where gangs have risen up and taken rule of most of the capital, “Tokyo Tribe” tells the story of a single night when the tribes of Tokyo drop beats, pick up weapons and fight for ultimate supremacy over a man and his army who threatens to unite Tokyo under his tyrannical rule once and for all. Directed by Shion Sono, this action/comedy/drama/musical has already risen to legendary status in only the short time since its theatrical release and I’m about to tell you exactly why.
“Tokyo Tribe” features a pretty basic story but thanks to higher musical and cinematic elements it laces itself in a fine golden coating and sets as quite possibly one of the most memorable movies of all times. Seeing a bunch of new-age warriors going head-to-head for the sake of land ownership and “street cred” is not something we’ve never seen before. Movies about gangs or juvenile delinquents fighting for honour and glory are a dime a dozen with most just being forgotten about. Somehow, “Tokyo Tribe” pulled off a basic story in a way that made it seem like so much more than…average. First of all, it had a huge cast of characters who each were allowed time to speak at least a line or two.
In most cases this would work against a film seeing as no time would be given to the growth of an individual character. Looking at “Tokyo Tribe” in a basic manor, you’d think the characters are all pretty one dimensional but, once you actually think about it, you kind of do get a feel for who they all are and how they’ve changed throughout. The film has quite an interesting script, interesting because everything said is through rap, but what I found to be the most enjoyable thing about it is that it was full of humour. It never once took itself too seriously and that helped as the movie went on and scenes got so much more ridiculous than you could have thought possible.
Outside of that humour, what I also enjoyed was, of course, the soundtrack. Fact is, the songs featured in “Tokyo Tribe” weren’t even that well-composed. Tracks were made up of basic beat lines that went on for longer than you’d expect without becoming monotonous or annoying. The actors then rapped what they needed to over the top. Now some of the raps were, for lack of a better term, shoddy. They were shoehorned in and added nothing but a quick cringe to the experience of the movie goer. Luckily these weren’t too predominant.
While you’d think my focus would be on only the rapping aspects of the soundtrack, what impressed me more than that was how the elongated beats before and after a character would say his or her piece made the movie seems as though it was just one big take. It wasn’t one big take though, there were cuts here, there and everywhere but the point is that the music allowed you to flow smoothly from scene to scene which added to just how well this movie came across visually. It’s quite a feat to be able to change your visual perception with auditory flow but it is possible and it exists within “Tokyo Tribe”.
Speaking of; “Tokyo Tribe” is such a visually pleasing movie…apart from the CGI animation which I feel as though was done badly for more comedic effect. The sets are all decked out with cracked concrete, walls of graffiti, the streets are flooded with neon lighting and it all just looked so great. I’m not usually one to comment on things like this but the costume coordination was also done masterfully. Each tribe had their own clothing style and so, without even knowing the faces of the characters, you immediately knew exactly who’s side they’re on.
The film is also blessed with a director who clearly knows a great deal about cinematic techniques because the camera and scene work was simply amazing. There was a great deal of symmetry used in many of the shots and each scene was framed wonderfully. Something I noticed is that this director must love panning shots because “Tokyo Tribe” is littered with them. Perhaps “littered” is a bad word to use because they are actually so damn effective at putting forth just what it is that this scene is about and how you’re supposed to feel about it. It also works great to intimidate an audience.
“Tokyo Tribe” is a real Cinderella story for me. It’s a film that came way out of left field and took me by surprise but left me beat boxing to the best of my ability thinking I was much more than just a simple critic. It locked me into its world and for hours after watching I just couldn’t escape it. Everyone I saw I either wanted to fight or rap to, all the while wishing I had as cool a fashion sense as the characters in this film. It wasn’t JUST a musical. In fact, I don’t think you could really call it a musical at all. Fellow writer for SnapThirty, Kane Bugeja, calls it a “Hip Hopera” and I think it perfectly fits “Tokyo Tribe”.
There’s enough drama to keep you interested in the story, enough action to break up the rapping, enough comedy to keep you laughing and a sound track so tight you’ll think you’re Grandmaster Flash. There are bits here and there that’ll make you doubt how good the movie is but I assure you they’ll quickly be taken over by thoughts of just how damn awesome this movie is. Anything that’s bad about “Tokyo Tribe” doesn’t last very long and, somehow, at nearly two hours long it compelled me to keep watching all the way until the very end. There’s a reason this is one of the hottest contemporary Japanese movies and isn’t thanks to luck.