Sion Sono’s “Tokyo Tribe” – 2014 Busan Film Review

Question: Which Japanese director would you pick to adapt a manga filled with blood, guts, violence, nudity, sex, profanities and despair in a futuristic Tokyo filled with gang warfare and a pulsing hip-hop soundtrack?

Answer: Sion Sono.  Who else?

For his adaptation of Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribe 2 (also known as Tokyo Tribes), Sono chose to play his version as a musical – or more accurately, a rap-off with some beatboxing – and it is a decision that is obvious from the construction of the opening four-minute continuous shot that scans an NC-17 version of a West Side Story setting.  A chaotic and disorderly Tokyo is where all the action occurs, with each of its 23 wards controlled by gangs.  Within these wards, even more subsets exist, and crossing neighborhood boundaries beyond one’s home turf can result in punishment far worse than forgetting a passport at a border.  The only individual seemingly exempt from this rule is MC SHOW (Shota Sometani), who serves as a narrator over the course of one evening in the city.  It is through SHOW and Mera, the snarling bleached-blond leader of the Bukuro Wu-Ronz (deftly played by Ryohei Suzuki), and a few leaders of rival gangs in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Kabuki-cho, Nerima, Koenji and Musashino, that all the main players and rivalries are presented in rapid-fire succession.  Each of the gangs is hungry to take over the entire city, but very few members actually know the lay of the land beyond their borders – or even within them.

The action finally gets started when several Bukuro girls and a scrawny tagalong boy pack into a van bound for Buppa Town for an evening of fun.  They instead stumble into an uneasy meeting between the rotund cannibal Lord Buppa, his effeminate son Nkoi, Mera and other dinner guests who are in negotiations of sorts to conquer Tokyo.  Upon seeing the now-frightened gaggle of Bukuro visitors, Lord Buppa chooses one – Sunmi, played by Seino Nana – to join their Saga Town harem, but little do they know that she has more than one secret of her own.  Meanwhile, a couple of guys from the Musashino Saru are lured to the same area in what ends up being a trap.  While the Saru are the only gang to preach peace and love, they still search for a good time and can exact violence when necessary.  This sets the stage for an all-out gang rap-off and battle with Kai (rapper YOUNG DAIS, impressive in his first film) unofficially stepping in as the top gun for the murdered Musashino leader Tera (Ryuta Sato).

In “Tokyo Tribe,” Sono has delivered a feast of sight and sound that will convert critics of musicals on the widescreen.  Sets drip in decadence from the trashed-up, graffiti-filled, rain-soaked streets to the small chandeliers dangling from the side mirrors of cars.  (The actual stage for the popular Robot Restaurant in Kabuki-cho, which reportedly cost its owners ¥10 billion (US$92 million) to construct, was used in several scenes along with the tanks from its real-life daily shows.)  Sono added some twists in the original plot and a few trademark dollops of humor among the violence; both are particularly evident in the reason that Mera hates the Musashino Saru the most, with Kai topping that death wish list.  Notably, the glue throughout is the score of young talent that Sono has cast, with some of Japan’s top rap and hip-hop artists in key roles and, of course, on the soundtrack, with the movie’s theme fronted by YOUNG DAIS, SIMON,Y’s and AI.

“Tokyo Tribe” will screen at the Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 9 (twice).  For more information, go to


Videos: Robot Restaurant, Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan (June 2014 and December 2015)
videos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine