Hyper-sensual and hyper-sexual, Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe blends eroticism with crass violence in an operatic tribute to hip hop culture. In a parallel vision of contemporary Tokyo, the city has been taken over and divided by competing street gangs. Reduced to litter covered streets, graffiti-adorned walls and fantastical mansions, the surrealism of the film’s music breaths through Tokyo’s dystopian decor. The vibrant aesthetics of each competing tribe forces its way into the film’s kinetic movements as if fighting for control of the film’s look, sound and tone.
Like a modern Satyricon, Tokyo Tribe shows a society unwound. With nothing left to transgress, human life not only loses all value, but sex becomes increasingly indistinguishable from violence. Intimacy, rooted in vulnerability and fear, becomes obsolete. Sex becomes little more than an exercise in power, a penetrative act and little more. Humanity, especially womanhood, is more akin to living dolls than sentient beings with wants, needs and desires. Society itself starts to crumble under the weight of increasingly perverse desires of the elite, as the values that hold together infrastructure and institutions are obliterated.
One of the most powerful gangs has a “furniture room” — a red room adorned with living sculptures; people painted white and forced to be still, contorted into shapes and poses. Inspired by Salvador Dalí and Alejandro Jodorowsky, the room feels sullen and robbed of oxygen. Standing impossibly still, it’s easy to forget there are living, breathing organisms under the crackling white pigment. In a moment reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, one of the gang members takes out a sharp knife and cuts one of his statues above the breast. And as the woman begins to shake — trying to contain her pain and fear — he licks the blood off her. This moment inspires eroticism through intimacy and transgression, as the woman (his piece of furniture) embodies the role of a human being and an object at the same time. She comes to represent both real and fetishistic desire all at once.
These instances, however, are also deeply uncomfortable. Sono’s filmmaking on a whole often blurs the line between exploitation and outright hate. Overall, Tokyo Tribe skates on thin ice, sometimes pushing violence against women a little too far, casting it off as pure comic book revelry (such as a moment where a woman is violently forced to deepthroat a gang boss, and he literally knocks her over — a moment played for laughs). Sono balances it out with some of his depictions of the female gang members, specifically a moment when a girl dons a yellow jumpsuit, only to be teased by her opponent that she’s a mini Kill-Bill. She slices at him screaming that, no, it’s for Bruce Lee. The sort of screaming repossession of culture, and the embodiment of a strong and capable woman, feels so victorious that it almost off-plays some of the film’s dicier gender politics.
Tokyo Tribe has an infectious beat, most notably the title number that echoes and beats into the subconscious: “Tokyo Tribe, never ever die! Tokyo Tribe, never ever die!” Sono shows an affinity for the musical genre in how he builds the film around rhythm and beats, relying on the musicality of movement, whether it’s the camera or characters that guide the action. It’s pretty amazing when you consider Tokyo Tribe was adapted from a manga series, since the identity of the story seems forged into the flesh of the music.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.