Sonoda Kenji's The Sakura of Madness

Curator's Note

Kyouki no Sakura (2002) is a hugely compelling film from Japan, directed by Sonoda Kenji from a novel by Hikita Kunio. The focus of the film is a tiny street gang, three young men whose love of foreign culture, including hip hop and (in one of the film’s recurring themes) foreign food uncomfortably coexists with their professed "Neo-Tojoist" (i.e. fascist) ideology. The film is extremely gritty, gruesomely violent, and shot with a manic surrealism, but amidst the spectacle, it's a powerful exploration of the psychic tensions of cultural globalization.

The soundtrack is by King Giddra, the most popular Japanese hip hop group of the 1990s.  They are widely credited with introducing ‘real’ hip hop to Japan - as well as being early harbingers of a growing nationalist right-wing hip hop movement. King Giddra members K Dub Shine and Zeebra have publicly endorsed fascist planks including a “Japan for Japanese” immigration policy, remilitarization, and denial of Japanese war crimes. While the film presents a psychologically realistic portrait of young nationalists’ motivations, King Giddra’s theme for the movie is considerably less subtle, extratextually positioning the doomed protagonists as models for Japan’s proud, powerful “Generation Next.”

I hope these three clips capture the film’s layered complexity. Dressed in pseudo-uniforms replete with Rising Sun symbols, the gang first brutally beat a group of foreign and Japanese pimps, seen as ‘traitors’ to Japan, while a professional hitman disposes of an inconvenient woman. Here we also get a glimpse of the way global hip-hop fashion has infused working class habitus in Japan. Next, gang leader Yamaguchi has a mournful rooftop conversation with his Yakuza patron, unabashedly admitting his love for foreign products: “delicious food is delicious” (Note that this is just one point where the subtitles hopelessly mangle the often elegant dialogue). Finally, we see the gang’s botched raid on a hip hop/reggae club catering to foreigners, part of their campaign against ‘foreign corruption.’ As they confront the alluring and terrifying Americans whose culture has such a singular pull for them, they externalize a psychic conflict at the heart of Japanese identity.

For more on Kyouki no Sakura, right-wing hip hop, and Japanese neofascism, watch for my article “The Sakura of Madness: Japan’s Nationalist Hip-Hop and the Parallax of Globalized Identity Politics,” forthcoming in Communication, Culture, and Critique.


David, thanks for calling attention to this film.  I'll have to put this on my netflix queue.  I have two questions for you.  First, how do you see this film fitting into a larger hip-hop cinema?  More specifically, is there a body of Japanese hip-hop cinema that this is part of, or is it more appropriate to contextualize it with American hip-hop cinema?

Second, how does the seeming right-wing and fascist iedology espoused by the film fit with what Cutler Edwards wrote in his post about hip-hop cinema as a vehicle for radical politics and strategies of struggle? Cutler seems to be suggesting that when we look at the transnational and multiracial project, we see hip-hop cinema as a site for minority groups to re-present themselves in more politically progressive ways.  Yet, in Kyouki no Sakura, the rightist politics would seem to undercut or at least problematize this assertion.  I'd like to know what your thoughts are on that.  This film seems like an especially interesting example of transnational hip-hop since most discourses on hip-hop in a globalized era cast it as a tool for under-privileged groups seeking more political agency.

Again, thanks for this great contribution.

Aaron, I'm aware of a few other Japanese hip hop films, and though none of them deal with quite the same politics as this one, I think they all follow in the tradition of global hip hop cinema as concerned with the margins of society (which is true of Kyouki too, it just raises the uncomfortable question of whether we should sympathize with marginalized people when they make really bad political commitments). The biggest other example is Saitama Rapper, a movie about a small group of kids who form a rap group in rural Japan as an attempt to escape their totally dead-end lives. It was marketed as light and fun, but it's secretly a really depressing portrait of contemporary Japan. There's a sequel, Saitama Rapper 2, which deals with aspiring female rappers. I haven't seen it, but I did talk to a production assistant who worked on the film. She was also a radical feminist, and she said the film had really good politics. There's another one that for some reason is totally eluding me at the moment . . . hopefully it'll come to me. As for the issue of hip hop and progressive politics, I think Kyouki no Sakura and the cultural formation that produced it show just how dangerous it is to make a blanket assessment of hip hop as 'progressive.' The members of King Gidra (the right-wing hip hop group) explicitly consider themselves to be working in the tradition of the Black Panthers, because right-wing politics in Japan positions Japanese people as oppressed by Western forces. In turn, this legitimizes and obscures the internal oppression of Japanese minorities (Koreans, Chinese, to a lesser degree Ainu and Buraku). I am aware of similar dynamics at work in right-wing hip hop in former Eastern Bloc countries, though I haven't been able to find out as much as I'd like. The whole thing is a hugely complex ideological web, and I'd again refer people to my forthcoming article, which breaks it down in a lot more detail than I can here. But suffice it to say, there's nothing inherently progressive about beats and rhymes, and globalized hip hop allows for all sorts of rearticulations.

How could I forget! The other great Japanese hip hop films are Kokudou Nijuugou Sen [Off Highway 20] and Saudade, both made by the badass grassroots collective Kusoku, or "Sky Tribe." Sadly, neither of these films are commercially available in Japan to my knowledge, much less in the United States - but they represent a huge possibility for an indie distributor, because they're both completely amazing. You can read a column I wrote about Kuzoku a few years back here:

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