Monday, February 15, 2016

Tokyo Tribe (2014) Movie Thoughts

You'll never believe what all the squabbling is about..

Could it be that I'm far beyond done with Takashi Miike? After a year plus of hearing frenetic buzz about Shion Sono's hypercharged adaptation of Santa Inoue's mad urban fantasy manga(1993, 1997-2005), I guess a part of me never suspected that it would wallow so much in familiar depths that it would forget the potential inherent in its more experimental qualities. Just pull focus back from all the holiday and gold laced lens flare, urban garishness, fly honeys, pimps, chinpira, bruisers, DJ grannies, chrome-dudded shogun on tanks, and dialogue in rhyme, and one has seen pretty much all of what happens here through any number of Miike's V-Cinema output in the 1990s.  Sion Sono, may be one of the most furiously active filmmakers in the world, and as such one cannot blame him for not knocking this delirious piece out of the park, but the end result feels deprived of a life it is certainly aching for.

Set in a fantastical urban myth of Tokyo, the city has become fragmented after quakes and rioting have severed the land into several unique district gangs. (Each with their own distinct rapping and DJ style) Told through the eyes of rhyming narrator, Sho (Shota Sometani) , we learn about these gangs, and the nightmarish kingpin that pines for dominion over the entire city. Led by the perverse crime lord of Bukuro, Buppa(Riki Takeuchi, in full coked-out mode), he and his cadre of sex and violence crazed beasts plot to crush peace-loving Musashino Saru. Stemming from an unexplained grudge belonging to Buppa's Adonis-esque enforcement , Mera(Ryohei Suzuki), a trap is set that begins a turf war that threatens not only Musashino's gang of country kids, but of every other group in Tokyo. Amidst this bubbling conflict, is the missing daughter (Nana Seino) of a foreign high priest on the run, and the street kid charged with protecting her. Plot takes a grand backseat, as Sono, cast and crew pull out all possible stops in creating an immersive hip-hop opera that largely drowns in its concept instead of marinating in it.

While the beats and visuals of Tokyo Tribe aim to create something truly singular in the world of the japanese gangster pic, so much happening within it plays like a greatest hits of a half century of Nikkatsu productions. This really should function dazzlingly on paper, but what ends up bogging a lot of the film down, is that pesky inability to allow us an emotional connection to anything that's happening. While Sono offers the viewer an immense playpen of swirling cameras, and impressive single takes, our identification with central characters end up surface at best, and label at worst. With a film so reliant on music and spectacle, it becomes hard to focus on any single character, leaving something of a void while matters grow increasingly mad, and the blood begins to fly. This also speaks to the female quotient of the piece, which renders them either as window-dressing, or accessory action. And even then, the debasement seems perfunctory, like a post-it note on everyone's trailer door. While Sono has never shied away from matters of the unveiled id, Tribe seems less interested in the psychology of such extremes, and just wallows. At least with this film, the human circus is presented as whirlwind sideshow, and we're given no real sense of absorbtion. It's a theme park ride logic that threatens to alienate many sections. As good seems so overpowered by evil throughout, it's hard to care when the cost is so casually explored.

Matters are not helped that we are never granted any greater reason to care whether the gangs unite or not, or a means to feel the villains beyond them being villains. Sure, there are implications of toxic masculinity, but to cop a reasoning ala The Warriors, one should be willing to offer up a bit more punch.

Sure, we've been here before. The one film that comes to mind with all of this is Sogo Ishii's Bakuretsu Toshii(Burst City), which also dealt with a colorful apocalyptic cityscape populated by musically driven communities, fighting for their share of a broken world. But what allowed that film to endure was a patience to hit pause long enough for us to grasp the world that was being lost in the rabble. Here, we are allowed in only so far as to where everything is a farce, bodies are disposable, and J-shock cinema has rendered viewers into inert quantities. In the two decades since super-violent post-anime action has declared an expectation of blood, blades, and exposed breasts as the law of the land, one would think that one of the premiere voices of Japanese film would offer up something beyond a louder version of what we've been overstuffed with. It's like we've been on pause since at least 1999, and that's the film's most glaring shame.

There is exuberance and energy to be found among the bass and fire of Tokyo Tribe. Just don't ask it to deliver past the packaging.

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