Sukiyaki Western Django, Japanese director Takashi Miike’s take on the spaghetti western, owes an explicit debt to the Sergio Corbucci/Franco Nero film Django, which it references in both title and content, as well as to the history of genre crossings between Eastern and Western cinema — the way Seven Samurai begat The Magnificent Seven, and especially the way Yojimbo begat A Fistful of Dollars and then a slew of good-natured imitations. You can trace the narrative of Sukiyaki Western Django in its basic form all the way back to Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest, which is all about a Pinkerton dick from L.A. who starts investigating a murder in a small town where he ends up playing various factions against each other as a crafty third party. That story was the unofficial inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s wandering samurai film Yojimbo, as well as for Sergio Leone’s unacknowledged remake, A Fistful of Dollars.
Miike’s visual strategy takes a lot of inspiration from Leone and other directors who favored a dramatic widescreen frame penetrated by bullets and spattered by blood, but the most explicit reference may be to Tears of the Black Tiger, the eight-year-old Thai film that employed painted backdrops and an aggressive digital coloring scheme to generate an alternate universe of almost hallucinatory intensity, where characters from Thai melodramas dwell in the world of an American Western. Sukiyaki Western Django‘s opening scene is a lot like that, with an obviously delighted Quentin Tarantino making an awkward cameo. He plays a chinny drifter who schools a woman in the art of making Sukiyaki, and perhaps a lot more, against the highly artificial background of a blazing red sun and the unlikely landscape of Mount Fuji.
It takes a while for his character’s relationship to the rest of the story to be made clear. It’s all about a small town run by two rival clans — the Heike and the Genji, the red gang and the white gang — perpetually in search of a hidden local treasure. The sheriff (Teruyuki Kagawa), a broken loon whose deputy appears to be Tyler Durden, is a largely inconsequential presence. The young, half-breed boy Akira (Shun Oguri) is a symbol of hope for the future as well as an omen of violence — his father was murdered in cold blood and hung from a gate near the city outskirts. His mother (Yoshino Kimura), a dancer at the local saloon, Eastwood’s, befriends a gunslinger (Hideaki Ito) who has wandered into town just as one of the gangs waits for the arrival of a new weapon that may help make gunslingers obsolete.
Miike is a flamboyant but straightforward filmmaker, and his movies live and die on the degree to which his derivative stylings click with the material. His polymorphous nature was an eerily perfect match for Audition, a highly controlled piece of work that begins as a thoroughly credible romantic comedy and transforms partway through into a disturbing horror show, and for The Great Yokai War, a lighthearted tour of Japanese fables that gathered all manner of legendary monsters into a single kid-friendly adventure yarn. Films like the Dead or Alive trilogy and the notorious Ichi the Killer, which riffed on the conventions of violent, hyperstylized crime films were enjoyable pastiches, and Sukiyaki Western Django is another one of those films where Miike is working from a well-worn template, juicing things up and stacking reference upon reference without creating a new vision.
The result is an entertaining diversion, with clever costuming and production design that set off Miike’s intriguingly off-kilter vision of a tiny western town in a “Nevada” that exists out in the Japanese desert. His best scenes are tightly packed bursts of action, like the sorrowful dance performed by Kimura in a pivotal scene;the mano-a-mano antics of rival gang leaders Kiymori (Koichi Sato), who insists that his posse call him “Henry,” after Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and the lithe Yoshitsune (Yuseke Iseya), who seems barely able to stomach the incompetence he sees in those around him; or the stylish bullets-and-blades finale that takes place against a snow-covered backdrop. But style is everything. The people living in this movie can’t even be said to be archetypes, or symbols. They’re simulacra — tweaked, illusory representations of movie archetypes that barely demand their perfunctory backstories. Miike understands this, and flouts any desire for coherence on the part of the viewer by uprooting the story both temporally and geographically. In this pioneer-era Nevada (it’s spelled “Nevata” on one building’s wall), the architecture is Japanese and the cowboys speak English as a second language; samurai swords are fit for combat with six-shooters; and the boy Akira is named after the famous 1980s manga serial by Katsuhiro Otomo.
It’s a clever film, and occasionally a superficially stirring one, but Miike is only speaking through the vision of others; as odd and occasionally striking as the results are, he doesn’t manage to find his own voice. Tarantino’s presence on screen is a too-clumsy reminder that the Kill Bill movies covered much of this same ground with more ingenuity and heart. B
The Blu-ray Disc from First Look Studios is fairly outstanding. The picture is crisp and clean; much of it, especially flashback sequences, seems to be highly digitally manipulated, but that’s consistent with an aggressive digital intermediate in the post-production process. (As a consequence, some of the saturated greens and yellows that appear on screen don’t actually exist anywhere in nature.) The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is robust and bass-heavy, whipping around the room to render dialogue, gunfire and other explosions with satisfying cracks and whumps. The deleted scenes aren’t much to write home about, although the presentation of an alternate edit of one action sequence on screen while the final cut plays in a window is pretty interesting, if only to give a more complete sense of what the whole thing looked like as it was performed on set.
Best of all is the nearly hour-long “making-of” featurette (like the deleted scenes, it’s standard definition only) that comprehensively covers the production, including everything from the foul weather that caused long production delays to the sessions where the Japanese actors overdubbed the dialogue in their native language. (Incidentally, reports that their English-language dialogue is difficult to understand are way overstated in my opinion; however, the disc includes English SDH subtitles if you need ‘em.) Miike himself gets lots of face time in the doc, as do the actors, who describe his working methods in detail. Miike’s fans especially will find this much more interesting than the usual on-disc fare, and it helps make this Blu-Ray title a more-than-respectable package.