NYAFF Review: Sion Sono’s TOKYO TRIBE Blasts NYC With Hip Hop

Two word for Sion Sono's hip hop opus? Beatboxing waitress.

There aren’t nearly enough hip hop films out there. There especially aren’t nearly enough hip hop films that feature bloody yakuza battles, miniguns, and beatboxing waitresses. Fortunately Tokyo Tribe, the latest work of insanity from Sion Sono (Why Don’t You Play In Hell, Cold Fish), is here to save us all.

Honestly, just saying “rap musical from director of Why Don’t You Play In Hell” should be enough to sell you on this. You have seen that, right? That movie is as delightful an ode to the making of cinema as there ever has been, one I’d place up there with 8 ½, Singing in The Rain, and Terror Firmer. But Sono has never been one to be pigeonholed. Each of his films are vastly different (though no less insane), and Tokyo Tribe is no exception. It premiered at Fantastic Fest last year and quickly become perhaps the fan fave (read Evan’s euphoric take here), just the perfect kind of festival film that leaves everyone walking out high. It was destined to do the same for the New York Asian Film Festival, and indeed, it seems it has. I’ve already seen the movie once before but how could I pass up a second chance? Fortunately the film has been picked up for distribution and should be available sometime this Fall from XLrator Media for everyone to enjoy.

Based on the second part of a manga by Santa Inoue, Tokyo Tribe depicts a seemingly post-apocalyptic Tokyo which is comprised of multiple “tribes”, each of which show off their skills via rap battle, and each of which have different styles of rap. Most of them rap about how badass they are and what they’ll do to you if you mess with them but there’s one tribe that’s different than any other, preaching love and understanding and other hippy nonsense.

The tribes don’t like each other but they leave each other alone, until a new group shows up in the city and kills a beloved member of the peace-loving Tribe. The new group is aligned with a big crime boss called Buppa, whose actor isn’t so much chewing the scenery as having a four-course meal of it, one catered by a beatboxing waitress.

Sidebar - I’d actually be doing you a disservice not to focus on Cyborg Kaori, who plays that waitress and single-handedly steals the movie. She enters a room full of incredible Japanese badasses and serves tea while extolling the bosses’ virtues via beatbox and single-handedly steals the movie. (She’s truly amazing.)

Anyway, this series of events leads to the Tribes joining up to fight this new menace and sets off an absolute massacre, because if there’s one thing that Sono films don’t skimp on it’s lots and lots of the red stuff. As you’d expect, the tribes all unite to fight against the new threat and they do so with katana, miniguns, and a rotating blade wall of death - all set to hip hop.

Nearly every line in this is rapped, making this more of a musical than anything else. But even as manic and fun as it is it’s hard not to think that you’re missing out on parts. Subtitles in a musical are a strange thing, especially one involving hip-hop. You’ve got to train your mind to read the words to get an idea of what they’re saying but you really have to listen to the flow of the words to enjoy it. It takes a little bit of training to do so, especially with festival subtitles, which are usually not as refined as an official theatrical release would get. It’s also painfully obvious, even without understanding the language, who is actually a rapper in real life. There are a lot of famous Japanese rappers here but some people sound wooden and stiff.

Still - this is a movie you’re supposed to play loud. It’s impossible not to nod your head to the soundtrack, impossible not to walk out of the theater with the refrain in your head - Tokyo Tribe will never ever die.


The New York Asian Film Festival was bigger than ever this year and we hope you didn't miss it.