Sukiyaki Western Django

Sukiyaki Western Django

Film review by: Witney Seibold



            If you don’t know who Takashi Miike is, then you should learn. He started his directing career in 1991, and already has over 70 credits to his name (that averages out to over four features a year). He is easily one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers. His films, while not always great (and, given such prolificacy, how could they be?) all contain a degree of surreal cinematic playfulness. Whether it’s a horror film, one of his many yakuza films, or a musical comedy, each film is markedly Miike. Influenced by Fellini and Lynch, but operating out of the traditions of Japanese artistry, Miike’s films achieve a quality that is at once dark, fun, and exhilarating.


            Although the story of “Sukiyaki Western Django” very closely mirrors the Kurosawa classic “Yojimbo,” I think it is trying to more closely emulate the work of Quentin Tarantino. It is a film that gleefully skips past sense and credibility, to make an ultra-violent, ultra-stylized action comedy. That Tarantino himself appears in the film is certainly a clue. And while it is indeed a fun film, and even a bit delightfully bizarre, as a whole, it’s a lesser Miike film. “SWD” doesn’t reach the amazingly delirious surreal pitch of Miike’s “Ichi the Killer,” “The Happiness of the Katakuris,” or his masterwork “Gozu,” and, despite the complex frenetic visual, animated sequences, and strange temporal playfulness, feels like a trifle.


            The story: A lone nameless gunman (Hideaki Ito) wanders into a small western town, literally in the middle of a gang war. On his left are the Heiki Red clan led by the maniacal Kiyomori (Koichi Sato). Kiyomori wishes to be called Henry, as he was inspired by a reading of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. If he read more closely, he would have seen that Henry was actually a weak, mealymouthed character. But whatever. Shakespeare references always sound good. On this gunman’s right is the Genji White clan, led by the fey and deadly Yoshitsune (the insanely handsome Yusuke Iseya), who can catch swords in his palms, and cut flying bullets in half. Good God, is he ever good looking. The two clans are fighting over a still-buried chest of gold that is rumored to have been buried in this town. They each try to recruit the gunman to fight on their side.



            Also mixed up in this is a tired young stripper named Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura) who was born a White, but married a Red. Her husband was killed years ago in a fit of gang revenge, but her half-Red-half-White mute child has been hidden away under the care of Ruriko (Kaori Momoi), the town’s shopkeeper. Ruriko also holds a secret: she was once the deadly mercenary known as The Bloody Benten. Tarantino appears as a gunfighter named Ringo who tells the movie in a flashback.



            It’s loud and fast and violent and frenetic and punk rock. Guns are fired a lot during the course of the film. And the bullets never seem to miss. One character shots a flying arrow out of the air. Another character shoots a bullet into the wind, and a moment later, it curves back to hit his intended target. During the film’s final 15 minutes, however, everyone begins missing. Suddenly everyone is a much worse shot than they used to be.


            But never mind stuff like that. This is obviously a film about style and homage, and not logic and realism. Miike just wants to show off his cool with this one. In addition to the nods at Tarantino and Kurosawa, Miike makes references, both subtle and crashingly obvious, to Sergio Leone, Fellini, the original Italian “Django,” and even Peter Jackson’s wilier moments. The result of all this mixing is a, well, a sukiyaki of explosive and goofy elements that each have their own flavor, but may be a little distasteful to some.


            Oddly, it’s the least cogent parts of the film that reveal Miike’s strengths. There is a character, the town sheriff (Teruyuki Kagawa), who is slowly going mad throughout the film. He is given screaming arguments with himself. Kagawa’s frantic, vein-bulging performance is not so much funny as it is oddball. His scenes make the fabric of the film’s self-consciousness unravel, and show off the pure Miike surreality underneath. Tarantino is telling the story of the film in flashback. At the start, he is a young man. In the flashback, he is an old man in age makeup. In the flashback, there is a flashback, where he is a young man again. This seems less like a continuity error, and more like playfulness.


            And, oddest of all, this film is in English. The actors are all Japanese, and while it’s clear that some of them know a little English, most of the cast pronounces their lines phonetically. It gives an off-balance quality to the performances.


            Fans of ultra-violent Japanese action comedy pastiches shouldn’t miss it. The rest of us can wait until Miike’s head is really in the game.



Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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