Sukiyaki Western Django Review
Everybody who has ever heard of the spaghetti western genre, knows that Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo was the base for both Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Sergio Corbucci's Django. Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django presents itself as a prequel to Corbucci's film, by describing a child in one of the final scenes as a Japanese boy who would soon travel to Italy to become Django. Sukiyaki Western Django was presented on the Venice Film festival of 2007, as an addition to the much hyped spaghetti western retrospective. Its reception was lukewarm, but since then it has found its own fans, viewers who care more for the movie's post-modern, post-New Wave, referential style and intentional camp. One comment on IMDB says: This movie was good, if you actually watched it instead of being the overzealous clichéd college film student who doesn't know anything but to kiss his or her own ass. I solemnly promise not to do this.
After an amusing opening scene (with Tarantino, a snake, a knife, an egg and a painted Mount Fuji in the background), we're smacked right in the middle of a town torn apart by an old clan war that recently has flared up again. The war was the Genpei War (1180-1185), and our story takes place several hundred years later (the plot outline on IMDB is wrong). The Scarlet Red Heiki and the Snow White Genji each occupy a part of the town, hoping to lay their hands on a hidden treasure. A stranger rides into town, but there's not much focus on him; the movie rather concentrates on both clans and their leaders, baby-faced Yuseke Iseya (an ex-model), leader of the Whites, and Koichi Sato, leader of the Reds, who has read about the English War of the Roses (won by the Reds!) and now forces his men to read Shakespeare and wants to be called Hen-Ray. There's also a child born out of a doomed Romeo & Juliet romance between a Heiko boy and a Genji girl. The stranger is asked by the child's grandmother (Kaori Momoi) to stay: secretly she is a gunslinger herself, the famous B.B. Bloody Benten, trained by the legendary foreign gunman Piringo (Tarantino)! She wants revenge for her murdered son and thinks the stranger can be of service to her.
Like the sukiyaki from the title, a sort of Japanese stew, the script is a hodge-podge of references, visual as well as verbal, not limited to Leone, Corbucci and Kurosawa. A bullet hole as big as a plate reminds us of The Quick and the dead, the squirting blood of The Wild Bunch, and the finale, set in the snow, could be a reference to both Kill Bill or The House of the Flying Daggers. With lines like 'Smells like victory' and 'We win this time' even Apocalypse Now and Rambo: First Blood, part II are mentioned. Some of these verbal references are very funny, the more since they're spoken in a distorted version of English, called 'Japlish'. Even Tarantino speaks a few lines in this barely comprehensible language and the result is hilarious. And wait until you've heard a Japanese actor say something like: You aa come to me au whistle Dixie ?
The vast body of work of director Miiki (he made more than 70 movies) includes all type of productions, but he is primarily known for depicting scenes of gory violence and sexual perversions. In that aspect, Sukiyaki Western Django is a surprisingly restrained movie. Actually, some of his fans have called it too glossy and mainstream ... The actor Hideako Ito was chosen, so it seems, because of his resemblance to Giuliano Gemma, whose Ringo character was also called Django in Japan (ringo being the Japanese word for apple). Sukiyaki Western Django was made with a fairly high budget, and it shows. Both set and costume design are awesome. The town is a perfect fusion of the classical western town and medieval Japanese architecture, Buddhist temples alternating with the saloon, the sheriff's office and dilapidated stables. The two clans look ultra cool thanks to a combination of Stetsons, dusters, bandanas, threadbare jeans and samurai swords hanging from gun belts. The score, seasoned with fragmental trumpets, whistles, drums, synth and guitars, is very atmospheric, and it's very nice to hear the well-known title song of Django sung in Japanese. But still the film doesn't work properly.
The problem of post-modern cinema seems to be that its style of film making needs a narrative vertebrae and interesting characters in order to work. Without it, those referential scripts stuffed with in-jokes fall flat after a while. Tarantino's Kill Bill worked because it had both interesting characters and an inventive revenge story, that made you wonder about its outcome. The characters in Sukiyaki Western Django are cool, but strictly one-note, and the use of this 'Japlish' seems to create a distance between us and them. The movie is intentionally camp and post New Wave, and that's all okay, but veering from violent melodrama to parody and back, it eventually becomes too much of a macaroni-pizza-pasta-spaghetti-chambara dish, too much of everything to be anything in particular.
Different versions: I saw the film first in cinema, at a length of 121 minutes. For the international DVD release, Miike has cut it down to 98 minutes. The shorter version is a major improvement. The film is still marred by occasional lulls, but some of the more tedious and pointless conversations have been removed and it seems far better balanced now.
Dir: Takashi Miiki - Cast: Hideako Ito, Yuseke Iseya, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Masanobu Ando, Takaaki Ishibashi, Shon Ogori, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yoshino Kimura, Quentin Tarantino