SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Sukiyaki Western Django

Film: Sukiyaki Western Django
Release date: 2nd February 2009
Certificate: 15
Running time: 121 mins
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Hideaki Itô, Masanobu Ando, Kôichi Satô, Kaori Momoi, Yûsuke Iseya
Genre: Action/Western
Studio: Contender
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

This is an English-language release.

Takashi Miike’s name is synonymous with the effect and style of Asian extreme cinema. Most notably Ichi The Killer, Audition and Three Extremes displayed a penchant for gore, twisted characters and the sickest of themes. With Sukiyaki Western Django, we are given Miike’s take on the spaghetti westerns of old. If this director’s reputation is anything to go by then this project promises a depiction of gun slinging worlds apart from the works of Sergio Leone and John Sturges.

The film starts sometime in the past as loner cowboy Piringo sits by his campfire with rattlesnake for dinner. As a small gang of enemies approach him, he tells the story of an ancient rivalry between the Genji and Heike clans, one which has been going strong since the Genpei war. He reveals a prophecy, “the mighty fall at last, to be no more than dust before the wind,” and in a flash he kills his attackers.

Many years later, and the rivalry lives on as strong as ever in the rural western town of Yuda. The white warriors of the Genji are lead by master swordsman Yoshitsune, and they live in hatred for the red warriors of the Heike and their talisman Kiyomori. The small town is growing poorer by the day, but there is great wealth to be found there - legend hints that lying somewhere in the hills is an ancient treasure of staggering value. The two rival tribes are each determined to find it before the other.

One day a gunman rides into town, and although mystery surrounds his past and his appearance, it soon becomes apparent that he is a highly skilled shot and warrior. Both tribes offer him riches beyond his wildest dreams for his help in finding the treasure. As speculation rises as to who he will join, so too does intensity between two lifelong enemies. Soon the small town breaks into a frenzy of murder, backstabbing and split allegiances...

One of the most striking and eye-brow raisingly strange elements of Miike’s film is the language in which it is spoken. This is technically the Japanese director’s first English-language film, but the delivery of the language comes in a way that is so stalled and disjointed that it is barely coherent. With subtitles throughout, this is no doubt deliberate, and it serves to produce the biggest of eastern/western contrasts - it also brings a smile to hear lines like “paybacks a bitch,” and “smells like victory,” spoken in an accent that makes it sound utterly foreign.

The presentation of the script reeks of homage to the type of dialogue you would expect to find spoken by Eastwood or Brenner - it does indeed borrow much from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 script for Django, which is the film’s main basis. The homage’s come thick and fast, and not only offers the most comedic of parody but shows the director’s infatuation with the genre. We are treated to showdowns, femme fatales, and a mass of other genre conventions - the notion of the lone gunman who comes to town played by Hideako Ito has Charles Bronson written all over it, and the film’s cowboy town is called ‘Yuda’ based in ‘Nevada’.

With a wealth of spaghetti western elements on show, Takashi Miike’s attention to style is still the most effecting part of the film, and its slight downfall. The film has a cameo role for Quentin Tarantino, and it would seem this film has been done much in the same light as 2007 geeked out parody fest, Grindhouse . Unfortunately, it also shares a very similar smugness, and although you must admire Miike’s ability to create remarkable imagery, this film is not as smart as it thinks it is. The bizarre nature of his work may be his trademark but it comes across in many places here as thoughtless – take, for example, the hyper schizophrenic sheriff whose presence on screen is utterly grating.

The imagery, though, is at times beautifully weird and wonderful. We see a range of heavily painted backdrops, a wardrobe that is a pleasing mix of rugged western and Asian robes and, of course, the gore is top notch. Miike is able to show the most stomach churning and explicit visuals to the most comic effect - in one laugh out loud scene, a protégée of the Heike clan has a sword embedded into his skull to the shock of a silenced room, but as blood spurts from his head, he continues to attempt a block.

Unfortunately, the film’s superior style seems to sacrifice any clear plot, and the narrative is often too busy. A cast of unbelievably perverse and crazy characters compete for the screen, and the action is so hectic and relentless that it is all a bit too much to comprehend – the fight scenes are ruined. That said, for fans of Takashi Miike, this is pure indulgence, and to many, its mindless violence is not necessarily a bad thing.

In the context of Miike’s back catalogue, this is not one of his better films. Although this will divide audiences, the prospect of seeing a man as peculiar in his ways as Takashi Miike tackling something as classically revered as the western is a sight to behold. For fan boys especially, this is very worthy of your attention, with enough action and incident for three western epics. LW

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