Rap, Rap, Rap!
by Natsumi Shiroko
Director Sion Sono’s greatest commercial success in Japan, the world’s first rap battle musical, Tokyo Tribe will be released in Britain on the 22nd of May. Tokyo Tribe is based on Santa Inoue’s legendary manga, Tokyo Tribe 2 which had a profound influence on Japanese hip hop culture for quite a while. It is set in the near future in a Tokyo-ish city which is divided between tribes. Merra (Ryohei Suzuki), a leader of the Bokuro Wu-Ronz tribe of Bukuro (Ikebukuro) decides to dominate all the city with the help of a gangster named Buppa (Riki Takeuchi). Against them, led by Kai (YOUNG DAIS), is the Musashino Saru tribe who unites other tribes in a fight together to save their “Tokyo”. If you are familiar with the city Tokyo, you feel more closeness with this film. All the tribes, Bukuro, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Musashino come from the real name of the places in Tokyo.
I watched this film twice in Japanese and with English subtitles. In the Japanese version, there are also subtitles for the lyrics of the rapping in Japanese, but watching this film with English subtitles was another experience in a good way. The subtitling of the rap, which was done by the film subtitler Don Brown and supervised by the rappers EGO and YOUNG DAIS, who both play roles in the film, was beyond my expectation. As rap originates from American culture some may say it is better when the rhymes are in English, but it may be easy to accept the subtitled lyrics.
As the film’s sales pitch points out, this is “the world's first battle rap musical”, and rap battle is crucial in the film. It was very clear there is a gap in the quality of rapping between actors and professional rappers. But it was also clear that some rappers don’t have a previous acting experience. So, people who show both their acting and rapping skill in the film cannot be ignored. Among the actors challenging rapping, Shota Sometani is outstanding. If you have watched recent Japanese films, Sometani may be the most familiar actor to you. Even though many professional rappers join this film, Sometani is the one who raps first. Due to lessons he had from EGO before and during the shooting, this opening sequence show his capacity as an actor who can learn things and absorb them as his own. This performance, the first 5 minutes is a long take, followed by another 5 minute introduction of each tribe, these are some of the best parts of this film. They caught my curiosity at one time and encouraged me to watch the film till its very end.
Without Ryohei Suzuki, the impact of the film would have been lesser. His shining hyper-masculine body enhances the depiction of chaotic Tokyo. Considering this film was released during the broadcasting of Hanako to Ann, which is a Japanese morning TV drama series he appears in, his transformation from an ideal good-husband in the TV drama series into a gangster only wearing a loincloth was a huge surprise for many viewers in Japan. (You can imagine this surprise by thinking Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevenson) in Downton Abbey playing the same role as Suzuki in this film.)
Although this is the first feature film for him, Kai (YOUNG DAIS) also fulfils his roles and can convince you that he was chosen by Shion Sono through a YouTube audition.
Sion Sono is the only director who can succeed in combining the different elements of rap battles, street gang action, and political messages in a film. His ability and fame from his past films made it possible to collaborate with all the professional rappers and actors. Sion Sono who was known as a cult filmmaker has now established his position as the only filmmaker who makes cult film and a commercial success.