Tokyo Tribe is a Japanese rap opera. That’s it, that’s all you need to know. If that’s not everything you ever wanted to see in a movie, I can’t help you. But for the sake of thoroughness, I will continue to give Tokyo Tribe a full review, even though it had me at “Japanese rap opera.”
One night in Tokyo, the five gangs who rule each region collide. The story unfolds through song as each gang raps their way to the inevitable conclusion. The plot is sort of a MacGuffin if you will. The point is just to see all these musical numbers performed with flamboyant set pieces, although it does have a good message.
The music is really layered with call and response verses substituting as dialogue. Rappers gracefully hand off the story to the next rapper. It rhymes in Japanese, but we often read English subtitles that don’t. A lot of the rap unfolds in long takes with flowing camera moves. I wondered whether the performers were rapping live or lip syncing to playback. Even when the characters resort to spoken dialogue, the score gives them an underlying rhythm.
It’s more than just a rap show, as Tokyo Tribe is constantly entertaining. There are martial arts battles, performance art pieces of human furniture, and a little sex and breakdancing. The sets are lavish and full of spectacle, and the film climaxes in a funhouse of combat.
Tokyo Tribe is really violent and more than a little rapey, but the fact that it’s a Shion Sono gangster movie should tell you it’s hardcore. The women seem like good sports, going all in for glorious exploitation. The middle is a little too talky, but as soon as the rap starts again the energy is contagious.
I wish there were more of the beatboxing schoolgirl. She was my favorite, but a lot of Tokyo Tribe will be somebody’s personal favorite. There’s so much creativity and entertainment on display, it is a rich work of art for the right audience.