Sono is one of the most prolific Japanese directors, although not up to the standards of Miike who manages more than one film a year without a noticeable drop in quality. Ever since Suicide Club/Jisatsu Saakuru (2001) and Exte/Ekusute (2007), I have been a big fan of his work. Suicide Club has perhaps the best opening sequence in horror.
Unfortunately, I found the overt misogyny of his 2010 film Cold Fish/Tsumetai Nettaigyo (2010) very hard to come to terms with. Humour, black or not, around rape is highly problematic. I didn’t feel that I could watch it again, and therefore never wrote a review as films need repeated viewing in order to write a proper review – at least for me it is the case. I suspect that part of my problem with it was culturally located as rape itself, is unfortunately, a common component of Japanese cinema. Since then, I have avoided Sono’s films but the trailer of Tokyo Tribes was interesting and I felt that perhaps I had been too hard on Sono. After all missteps are common in any field of the arts and most great directors have one or more turkeys in their back catalogue.
So back to Tokyo Tribe, a film that sets out – consciously or unconsciously – to offend women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the first 10 minutes. The overall concept is great. A hip-hop musical about competing tribes in a dystopic Tokyo, who eventually come together in peace against a common enemy, is both inventive and innovative. Tokyo Tribe is based on the best-selling manga by Santa Inoue (1987-2005) which was published in Boon, a street fashion magazine which is now published by Shodensha, and feels like a throwback to the mid to late 1980s. The fact that Sono choose to introduce the tribes to the audience by having Mera – the boss of Bukuro Wu-Ronz – trace the geography of the different tribes over the half-naked body of a policewoman (who tries to arrest him on her first day on the job) alerts us to the insistent discourses of male voyeurism and fetishism than run throughout the film. The fact that the female tribe members, are either prostitutes, or dressed up like 2000s Missy Elliot and coded in non-normative terms, is highly problematic. In addition, the schoolgirl heroine, Erika, who has some kick ass moves – we are told that she comes from Wong Kong (Hong Kong) – is often freeze framed or in slow motion as the camera pans in up skirt to linger on her white underwear is even more troubling.
Not another panty shot please!
While as other critics have argued, Tokyo Tribe like other Sono films, embeds a social critique of Japanese society, politics and patriarchy, it seems to me that the film simultaneously constructs figures of female empowerment and strips them off that empowerment by overt sexualisation through the use of terms ‘cultural scopophilia’. I use the term ‘cultural scopophilia’ here to foreground the othering of cultural and ethnic difference in Tokyo Tribe through the visual lexicon of fashion as signifier of Otherness. Erika’s innocence – or sexualized innocence as connoted by her schoolgirl uniform at the beginning – is the opposite to the hyper-sexuality and non-normative sexuality of the Kabukico Gira Gira girls. In addition, while the Mushashino tribe might be all about love and peace, there are limits to this love and peace – as the transcribed lyrics go “No homos, we ain’t Kissing Dudes”. While homophobia, unfortunately, remains at the heart of contemporary hip-hop and rap, Sono did not have to replicate and foreground this homophobia.
Nkoi gets his ‘freak on’
Further the son of the film’s bloated baddy, Lord Buppa (Riki Takechi), Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) keeps slaves that they don’t eat for dinner and pleasure, as his personal puppets cocooned in an ivory room in which his harem have to position themselves as furniture or perform for him in order not to incur his wrath. Once again, suppressed homosexuality is coded as inherently deviant and monstrous, in its opposition to dominant heterosexuality which is capable of ‘peace and love’ but not, as I pointed out previously, to all.
There is much to be enjoyed in its visual excesses and poetic raps, it is just necessary to be aware of what problems such excesses may mask. Excess is not necesssarily subversive. Here excess functions as licenced rather than unlienced carnival, the former of which props up the dominant ideology by allowing space for subversion and by controlling that space. While I always enjoy Sono’s visual mastery, I was uncomfortable with the gender and sexual politics on display here. As much as it could be claimed that Sono is critiquing such politics, in the end he reinforces such politics at the level of image and sound. In repeating the visual and aural legacy of hip-hop which is predicated on the oppression of women and non-normative sexualities, the message of ‘love and peace’ rings rather hollow.