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Tokyo Tribe: A mixture of Cassavetes, Fassbinder, and arterial spray

Japanese street gangs do battle in the latest art-shocker from Sion Sono.



Japanese cult filmmaker Sion Sono (Suicide Club, Love Exposure) once cited as his primary influences John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and 80s splatter movies, and many of his films play like a fusion of those three elements. Like Cassavetes, Sono elicits bold, expressive performances from his actors to depict characters at emotional extremes; he also favors jittery, handheld-camera work that gives his films a sense of wild spontaneity. Like Fassbinder, Sono is a social critic whose characters tend to be outcasts and people desperate for love, and a remarkably prolific artist whose quickly and cheaply made movies (about 20 in the last decade) exude a rousing punk bravado. The influence of splatter films is the most obvious, though. Sono's movies are filled with depraved sex and violence, often depicted in stomach-churning detail. The gruesome content can distract from Sono's impressive formal ambition (he often structures his films like postmodern novels, with different passages presented from different characters' perspectives), not to mention his bold juxtapositions of high and low culture.

If you haven't seen a Sono film, Tokyo Tribe (2014) might be a good place to start; the tone is playful and the gore relatively light. Based on a Japanese comic book but highly reminiscent of Walter Hill's The Warriors, it takes place in a futuristic Tokyo ruled over by a few dozen street gangs, all of whom wear distinctive, colorful costumes. The story unfolds over one long night, during which a crazy, people-eating yakuza named Lord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi, best known here for Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy) tries to eradicate all the gangs so he might become the "devil king of Asia." A peace-loving tribe called the Masushino attempt to thwart Buppa's plan by uniting all the other gangs against him. Will they succeed in their mission before Buppa and his army succeed in theirs?

Also: the film is a musical, with nearly all of the dialogue delivered as rap over hip-hop beats. The soundtrack fits well with Sono's filmmaking, which mixes together disparate elements the way a DJ might move between radically different records. The cast includes professional actors, stunt performers, and rappers with little acting experience, and the acting styles vary wildly within scenes. The production design is no less diverse; Sono hired a Tokyo student arts collective to work on the sets (after the fashion of classic musicals, the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages), filling them with graffiti, Christmas lights, and assorted bric-a-brac. One can easily get lost in the dense look of Tokyo Tribe, which plays like a sketchbook for the writer-director's prodigious imagination.  v

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