Is this shallow live-action anime film actually deeper than we give it credit for?
The 2014 adaptation of Tokyo Tribe has been dismissed by many people as an utterly repulsive trash pile that prefers to indulge in excess rather than make something out of it. Its Netflix rating is really low, it has received low scores on various movie sites, and it’s not a very popular film as is, even by the standards of live-action Japanese movies. Up to this day, I’ve always sort of dismissed it as a fairly entertainingly, but ultimately shallow work from a director who’s done a much better job at mixing his crazy style with really good substance in the past. However, multiple rewatches along with my ever-changing mindset have opened my eyes to this film’s appeal and how underneath the goal of being the first-ever rap battle musical is a story that’s worth exploring. It’s a bit of a gimmicky story admittedly, but I think it’s still worth talking about, hence why it’s the subject of this week’s mini-essay.
One big question that pretty much any viewer who finished Tokyo Tribe will most likely ask themselves is this: what was the point of all that? Why exactly did we watch all these bad rappers we’re not given any background about massacre each other whilst high on drugs? Did we really need to see so many females nearly getting raped? Was I supposed to see Tera’s death as tragic given how we never got to know him the way everyone else seemed to? That last question is pretty valid, but everything else regarding why all this chaos happens is pretty much answered by the main antagonist Mera during his final battle/rap-off with main male protagonist Kai: because the former discovered that the latter had a larger penis than him. No seriously, that’s the main reason why he was so hellbent on starting a war against Kai’s gang while pulling all the other Tokyo gangs into it if necessary. Sounds incredibly silly right? Well maybe to most people, but to Mera, a large penis is a sign of manhood that’s totally worth killing over. I mean it’s not like real wars have any good reason for existing, right?
When it comes to the institution or cultural form of behavior called “war,” on the other hand, we are less likely or willing to recognize that we are the source; that we have created and embraced warfare because it represents the fulfillment of human desires. We tend to experience war as originating in a place outside of the self, as if warfare manifests against our will. Wars “break out.” They seem inevitable. They happen because they have to happen. Wars have always happened. This is the way things are. We are not responsible. – Library of Social Science Blog
War is a very tricky topic to discuss. We all know it exists and we all know that even when there are reasons, it creates a lot of casualties that are ultimately not worth it. We know it’s bad for us, and yet we keep participating in it anyways because G Gundam-like martial arts tournaments are apparently not a viable alternative in reality. We try to be careful in regards to making WWII jokes because even though most of Hitler’s victims would be dead of old age by now anyways, his horrible legacy is something that even ten generations would probably not erase. We’re aware that there are much smaller, yet no less lethal, wars going on in certain crime districts when we’re not paying attention to ISIS fucking up. The point is, we know it exists, we know why we fight certain battles, and most of us probably know that the reasons for its existence boil down to a conflict in ideologies. But I think few people realize just how fundamentally empty the ideologies have to be to allow for war to happen in the first place.
Why do you think wars exist?
Because people are shitty. I mean, I’d like to be able to give you an answer with more poetry and prose behind it, but the simplicity of the reason alleviates any practical reason for it.
We go to war because people like to be shitheads to each other. – Jeff Carlise-Tierno
When you get down to it, why can’t we just replace war with something a little less lethal if the only reason for its existence is due to a conflict in ideologies? Sure some of those ideologies may be war-hungry, but even they have to avoid committing war crimes when ordering their men to die. Why can’t we just throw those few motherfuckers in jail and just simulate war through chess matches? As the above quote states, no matter what reason you give, it’ll always come to people being shitty, and there’s really no need to elaborate anymore. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. There is one thing Jeff did not clarify regarding why people kill each other: because what’s wrong to many people can be right to one person. And if that one person is incredibly destructive…you get Adol…I mean Joseph Stalin.
Mera, like most of the characters in Tokyo Tribe, is a giant nutter who hangs around with a destructive group that controls a portion of Tokyo. He is also a proud man who was raised to believe that having a giant penis equals being the best, whilst also simultaneously raised to believe that when a black man’s dick is smaller than his, said man deserves to die. Therefore, when he discovers that peace-loving gang member Kai has a horsedick the likes of which he’s never seen, it’s obvious to him that if he can’t be the best at what’s important to a man, he’ll make sure that his competition will disappear. No that doesn’t make any logical sense to us, but it makes logical sense to him. And Tokyo Tribe is a movie that coasts all of its plotting on being nonsensical to the majority of viewers. Lots of absolutely bonkers motivations driving the warring sides. Lots of overkill regarding taking out a common mook. Y’know, just like a real battlefield…if it was imagined by a madman who came up with the awesome idea to have the sides rap battle each other whilst trying to get another kill.
And believe me when I say Mera is far from the only person in this film whose motivations are just plain crazy for the sake of being crazy. His boss is pretty much a power-hungry dictator. The boss’s son just wants to use people as Clockwork Orange-style furniture. And on the protagonists’ side, only Kai’s gang has the goal of promoting love and peace throughout the world, while everyone else from the Gira Gira Girls to the Nerimamuthafuckaz want to uphold crazy traditions and control whatever part of Tokyo they want. Most of the time, we’re only rooting for them because they eventually side with Kai, who is clearly a good guy and not just the lesser of two evils. But there’s no getting around the fact that Kai is part of a Tokyo gang and will kick your ass if you threaten him or his family. Also, killing one of his best friends isn’t going to motivate him to avenge said murderer with anymore than a beatdown, which you can take as a sign that he’s an angel at heart or that he got dropped as a baby. No real reason for his nature either. It’s just what he is.
Tokyo Tribe is a giant gang war movie that purposefully strips away all the sensible philosophies and meaningful character arcs/backgrounds that generally make up the bulk of real war films like Full Metal Jacket or classic gang war tales like The Warriors for the sole purpose of commentating on these sort of conflicts for what they really are: a load of shit to everyone who’s not fighting. It doesn’t try to create any meaningful answer regarding the nature of war so much as it tries to offend the viewer as much as possible. And it doesn’t really care if the viewer accepts its masochistic love, because it doesn’t see what it’s doing as wrong in the first place. Just because most people were raised to expect something to make sense doesn’t mean that making sense should be a requirement in order to convey a good tale. Especially when it’s about as something as nonsensical as war.
Everything that makes up the movie, from the religious leader who wants to sacrifice his own daughter that is never brought up again after his one scene, to the little kid who we don’t know by name and knows kung-fu and breakdancing better than most adults for no adequately explained reasons, is all just cool flavoring that you shouldn’t question because ultimately their circumstances are miniscule compared to the big picture. They don’t need a reason for existing in this tale because this entire conflict is based on reason that you have to be there to understand, and Tokyo Tribe is fictional so good luck going there. It may be trashy on the surface, but underneath it is a web of beliefs that gives these characters a reason to live. No matter how you feel about said beliefs, it’s the fact that they have them that they can be content with their lifestyle choices. And if you oppose them on that, prepare to face an entire army.
Even the exploitation/”anime done in live-action” style is an important element of the story, playing off Tokyo Tribe’s strengths as a work of fiction whilst still talking about something real. Everyone knows that war in real life is an ugly sight to behold, but do we always have to depict it like that in fiction? Mobile Suit Gundam and all of its successors wouldn’t exist if we couldn’t mess with the presentation a little, as there’s something inherent to mecha that you just can’t take 100% seriously. Sure the many random martial arts and ultraviolent grindhouse slaughtering may be further away from an accurate depiction of the battlefield than a giant energy blade causing a likable character to blow up, and there’s no denying that only one of the deaths in the movie was really tragic – and only to the protagonists, as the audience never gets to know the victim in any personal way. But as I said before, Tokyo Tribe has no intention of exposing it as a horrific mess that eats innocents alive. It only wants to depict it as a nonsensical mess, so why can’t the presentation be a nonsensical mess as well?
So does that make Tokyo Tribe a pro-war film? An anti-war film? It’s definitely not a character study like Patton if it purposefully eschews the characterization to get its message across. So what side is it taking on the issue? Well despite all the stylization and lack of meaningful answers to the issue, I firmly believe it’s anti-war at the end of the day. After the large amount of bloodshed within a single night and day, the movie ends up with the peace-loving good guys winning, most of the rival gangs are now united under their ideology, and the ending theme song is basically all about finding hope whilst acknowledging all the bad surrounding said hope. If that’s something that celebrates war, then next you’ll be telling me that Donald Trump’s current policies are secretly some sort of Zero Requiem-esque plan to absorb the bad inside him so that when he falls, everything bad about the world is destroyed as well. To which I’ll respond: bwahahahahahahahaha…no, and I wouldn’t tweet that comparison if I were you.
It’s smarter and more subtle with its anti-war stance that way: not agreeing with the violence on the battlefield, but not shying away from the fact that when it does happen and no matter the result, it’s ultimately going to be a stupid encounter for stupid reasons. Nevertheless, those reasons belong to the people fighting, and we’re just going to have to accept that they own it. I personally think that’s a very unique and very interesting way to look at the world’s conflicts, even though we should also agree that if the ideologies said reasons lead to are downright illegal/deadly, we lock it away from the world. Because NAMBLA promotes sex with children, and that’s just downright wrong. Also, ISIS’s actions should never be viewed in a positive light.
Some people might take my interpretation as the film trying to have its cake and eat it too, but while I can’t say my reasons for having it are objectively good in any way, why do they have to be? As long as they’re good to me and I don’t shoot anyone who disagrees, there shouldn’t be any problem. And being a soldier in the Tokyo Tribe universe isn’t such a bad a way of life when you get down to it. At least your chances of surviving are higher than living in Iran. Plus when the massacre is over in their world, all the factions get to celebrate with a big rap party.