Although not entirely a new concept, Asian Westerns have certainly been enjoying a minor surge in popularity of late with acclaimed Korean director Kim Ji Won’s “The Good, the Bad and the Weird” and eccentric Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western Django”. The latter has now been released on DVD in the UK through Contender, and sees the wacky helmer managing to recruit perennial fan boy favourite Quentin Tarantino for a supporting role, making the film a surefire cult hit. For the record, the title refers to sukiyaki, a Japanese beef dish, linking the film to the Italian spaghetti westerns of the past, not least Sergio Corbucci’s original “Django” itself, which was originally released back in 1966 and starred Franco Nero in the iconic lead role. Needless to say, with Miike this could mean just about anything, or indeed nothing at all, and unsurprisingly the film is a wild affair, though one which by his oddball standards at least still manages to deliver a coherent and entertaining tale of bloodshed and traditional genre values.
Tarantino appears in the bizarre opening scene, which features a painted background set that recalls Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng’s Western “Tears of the Black Tiger”, and which nicely sets the scene for the wackiness to come. After a bout of his usual over the top acting (forgivable here thanks to his obvious enthusiasm for the role), he begins to narrate the story proper, apparently set ‘several hundred years after the Battle of Dannoura’ (possibly the late 1880s) in the small, dusty village of Yuta, Nevada. In a familiar set up two gangs, the Heike and the Genji have been locked in a struggle for the settlement, or more precisely for its legendary treasure. Into the stand off rides the time honoured mysterious stranger (played by Hideaki Ito, also in “The Princess Blade”). Soon enough, the man in black has taken a young boy under his wing and has started causing trouble as past grudges are aired and both sides vie for his allegiance, very much in the manner of “A Fistful of Dollars”.
Of course, with Sergio Leone’s film having been essentially a remake of the Kurosawa classic “Yojimbo”, this has a certain poignancy, and indeed “Sukiyaki Western Django” is a vibrant cross cultural exercise that sees Miike capturing the essence of the genre whilst having no end of fun with its conventions. The most noticeable aspect of the film and the one most likely to cause consternation is the fact that it was shot in the English language. However, although the accents do grate a little at first (the subtitles help), the viewer soon gets used to them, and as the film progresses it becomes clear that having Japanese actors speak English is a deliberate device to further enhance the mixture. Certainly, the film as a whole is a melting pot, not only of cultures, but also of genres, with cowboys and samurais slinging pistols and swords in equal measures, and with classical western motifs such as machine guns and showdowns rubbing up against Shakespearean quotations.
As such, the film goes get rather crazed at times, though after an opening half hour which jumps around with disregard for traditional narrative in typical Miike fashion, it settles down into a surprisingly coherent tale. Although the characters are somewhat abstract and the plot classically familiar, the surreal edge gives the proceedings a fresh feel and keeps the viewer entertained and engaged. Style reigns supreme over substance, and the film is colourful and dynamic throughout, which helps to keep things moving during the moments when the pace sags. The visuals are impressive and even oddly beautiful in places, chiefly during a few moments of melancholia. Fans will be pleased to hear that the action comes thick and fast, with lots of shoot outs and duels of one description or another. The film is certainly violent, though not one of the director’s more sadistic efforts, being bloody in an explosively cartoonish fashion. This is to its benefit, as the proceedings are in general a lot of fun, with an upbeat tone.
“Sukiyaki Western Django” is definitely one of Miike’s more accessible efforts, though not without sacrificing his trademark surrealism. Although firmly labelled as cult viewing, it should remain entertaining and worthwhile even for those not usually impressed by the director’s off the wall style.
Takashi Miike (director) / Takashi Miike, Masa Nakamura (screenplay)
CAST: Hideaki Ito … Gunman
Masanobu Ando … Yoichi
Koichi Sato … Taira no Kiyomori
Kaori Momoi … Ruriko
Yusuke Iseya … Minamoto no Yoshitsune
Renji Ishibashi … Benkei
Yoshino Kimura … Shizuka
Quentin Tarantino … Ringo