The Wild West is reborn in Japan in Sukiyaki Western Django, that takes the intertwined history of samurai films and spaghetti westerns for a garish, twisted and funny ride.
I haven’t seen many films by internet darling filmmaker Takashi Miike. I liked Ichi the Killer fine enough, it was a hilarious mix of gangster and superhero movie with an unflinching eye for ridiculous, sadistic violence. Sukiyaki Western: Django, is his take on the cult classic spaghetti western Django, about the gun-runner who drags a coffin behind him. There have been over 100 “sequels” to Django, so why not one set in Japan?
Miike is probably best known for his hyper-violent gangster films like Ichi and Full Metal Yakuza; the disturbing horror film Audition; and the “Masters of Horror” episode “Imprint” that played on Showtime last year. He’s not genre-bound, having done bizarre comedies like The Happiness of the Katakuris, and dramas like The Bird People in China, but dark comedy infuses most of his films. He’s a little too aloof and hip for my taste when he does his gangster films, and Django is definitely in that category.
In this movie, the cast is entirely Japanese except for Quentin Tarantino, but it is all in English. The disc I have has no English subtitles, so the film becomes an exercise in trying to understand people with harsh accents, or just ignoring most of the dialogue. It’s amusing at first, then varies from tedious to humorous depending on the scene. Overall I found it annoying and unnecessary, but it does recall some of the Spaghetti Westerns where the dubbing is so bad that you don’t know what the hell Trinity is saying, or Lee Van Cleef is the only guy who makes any sense.
The story itself has been filtered through so many remakes that the origin is unclear. A casual filmgoer might say “Hey, this is A Fistful of Dollars.” A hipster might counter, “No, it’s Yojimbo, you Philistine!” and me, I’d wink and say “Actually Yojimbo is based on Red Harvest, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, you scruffy hipster twat.” Kurosawa admitted copying the “bad town” concept where an outsider plays both sides to destroy them, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Red Harvest is a forgotten movie of a good novel, and Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars are both pretty, so stop fighting.
Sukiyaki Western Django is good fun, especially with a group and beer. Miike films beautifully, and the washed-out digital look reminds me of the old prints of spaghetti westerns I’ve seen, like when Trinity defends a Mormon village. That was practically transparent. The two gangs in town helpfully dress in White or Red, and while some scenes are filmed against a fake sun and a backdrop of Mount Fuji, the scenery looks quite good and believably western. Yamagata province stands in for Spain standing in for the Old West.
A kid’s father is killed and his mother seeks revenge, working as a prostitute for the rival gang of the killer. When the drifter shows up he’s wooed by both sides, and he’s wounded, and they find the gold and the coffin with a Gatling gun in it, and a lot of people die. That’s the story. They find the gold, chase a crazy guy in a wagon who throws dynamite, and find Django’s coffin with the Gatling gun in it. The fight scenes are exciting, clever and funny- the two gangs are both after the wagon, so it is constantly turning around, and people are being dragged by horses, back and forth.
There’s a funny scene with Zen swordsmanship, and Quentin Tarantino returns later in the tale, old and infirm, in a steampunk mechanical wheelchair. The film has little substance, but it’s got visuals in spades and is certainly enjoyable to watch once if you like spaghetti westerns and yakuza films. It’s a far cry from Kill Bill, or even the excellent and hilarious Samurai Fiction, but it’s certainly not crap. It’s too long, and the choice of language becomes tedious rather than humorous by the end, and it’s not thrilling enough to watch repeatedly and figure out what the hell they’re saying. I wish the DVD had English subtitles on it- it actually might, but the menus are all in Japanese, except for the helpful “Main Menu” button. I tried all 3 subtitle choices with no luck.
I’m going to go watch the original Django, for while I love spaghetti westerns and Japanese movies like a good internet nerd, I don’t love all of them, and Miike’s genius has been elusive to me so far. He makes a good movie, but I’m not in the fanboy camp yet. I’ll get back to you after I see a few more, but until then I’m more of a fan of Takeshi Kitano.
Meet the gunslinger clip.