[Image courtesy of Leedsfilm.com]
Part of 28th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF28)
5th – 20th November 2014
As you flicked through your LIFF27 film catalogues last November, you might have noticed something rather amiss. There were films on show from nearly every genre imaginable, from action right through to touching coming-of-age drama. There were art-house pieces, schlocky horror films and raucous comedies. There was even a documentary about the secret lives of sign painters. What there was definitely not was a Japanese hip-hop sci-fi gangster musical. But this year, one man had a dream.
Based on a manga by Santa Inoue, Tokyo Tribe may very well be one of the strangest films shown at this year’s festival. In the vein of Les Misérables, almost all of the dialogue in the film is rapped by the performers over pounding hip-hop music. The sets and costumes have been constructed in a manner that can only be described as a mixture between a post-apocalyptic wasteland and an explosion in an 80’s rave. On top of all this is a story of gang warfare, a missing heiress and the importance of friendship.
Because, or perhaps in spite of this, Tokyo Tribe has a real sense of charm to it. The film has clearly been a project of passion for director Shion Sono; there’s such a level of detail put into most aspects of it that you can tell everyone involved put their all in. What’s more, you can tell the cast have enjoyed making it, as evidenced by the gleeful performances that some of them give. This is such a rare thing to find in a film these days that it can’t help but elevate it slightly.
On top of this, the cinematography is really quite excellent. Sono makes extensive use of long tracking shots that help give the impression that you’re moving through the dank and narrow Tokyo streets. This has the knock-on effect of capitalising on the sets that he’s constructed; from the back-alleys to the dingy nightclubs, every location in Tokyo Tribe has an authentic, lived-in quality to it. They are also mostly highly stylised, with the near-omnipresent neon lighting selling the idea that this is a violent, seedy sci-fi future.
What does become apparent though is that while a lot of work went into designing the sets and props, a considerably smaller amount went into the special effects. Whether this was down to technical inability or budgetary constraints isn’t quite clear, but it’s hard to spot a digital effect in Tokyo Tribe that doesn’t end up looking cheap. A few examples instantly spring to mind: one scene features a giant spinning blade that doesn’t mesh well at all with the real life background behind it, and there’s a CGI tank that appears about halfway through that would look more at home in an early 90’s video game. More disappointing is the reliance on CGI blood during large fight scenes, which compared to the practical effects we see looks clearly fake, especially when it’s then vanished from the bodies in the next shot. Things like these can really drag an audience out of a film, so it’s always a shame to see them appear.
On the whole, the performances given by the leads are hard to find fault with. Ryôhei Suzuki chews the scenery delightfully as the violent gangster Mera, and Yôsuke Kubozuka is equally memorable as the sociopathic Nkoi. However, occasionally this is pushed a little too far. Even in a film as over the top as Tokyo Tribe, Riki Takeuchi’s performance as crime lord Buppa stands out as kind of over the top. Whereas everyone else plays their part at least mildly seriously, Takeuchi goes full-on cackling pantomime villain, twisting his face like a cartoon character and howling at the top of his lungs. Whether this was his decision or Shono’s is unclear, but needless to say it’s just a bit excessive. And that’s in a film where someone tries to pick a lock with a wire and the power of breakdance.
Another slight issue comes as a result of the decision to have every actor rap their lines. While some of them are capable musicians, there are a few weak links among the cast that are unable to sell their raps convincingly. These enthusiastic but untalented performances can be a bit awkward to watch, and come across like seeing your dad trying to dance at a disco.
All things considered, Tokyo Tribe is a decent film. While there may be a few snags with special effects and performances, a lot of the film is still very technically impressive. What’s more, it’s a lot of fun to watch.