Quentin Tarantino introduces this… wait, come back! OK, Tarantino may not have a great track record when it comes to acting but Miike’s offbeat Western is the perfect place for QT’s heavy-handed style. In fact, it’s a film that celebrates it. What will irritate/delight audiences first is that the Japanese cast also speak English, or at least attempt to. They gurn, lisp and sneer but it’s all part of Miike’s in-joke about Italian spaghetti Westerns, themselves always dubbed after filming – particularly badly in the English version of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966).
That the dialogue is largely incomprehensible is of little consequence. Characters deadpan the usual ‘a man’s gotta do’ clichés but Westerns aren’t about meaningful declamations, actions speak louder than words. The basic plot is Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), Miike making a point of reclaiming Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) for Japan: a lone nameless Gunman (Hideaki Ito) drifts into town in the middle of a war between two clans, the white-clad Genjis led by sword-wielding Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya) and the red-wearing Heikes under paranoid Kiyomori (Koichi Sato). Inevitably, much brawlin’ and shootin’ ensues but the fun’s to be had in Miike’s warped use of the genre’s iconography.
It’s a prequel of sorts to Django, and in a nod to the original film, the destructive Gatling gun that’s put to good use in the second half of the film is housed in a coffin. In the first part, which is somewhat mired by lengthy flashbacks explaining the town’s sorry state, the Gunman helps a mute boy whose father was murdered during the feud. Meanwhile, Kiyomori decides he should be addressed as Henry in tribute to Shakespeare and Yoshitsune dismisses the way of the samurai for a life of dirty combat. Throw in a schizophrenic sheriff who is hopeless at choosing sides and Kaori Momoi’s croaking old lady who transforms into a ruthless gunslinger – possibly the most bad-ass grandmother put to film – and you’ve got Miike’s usual brand of self-indulgent strangeness.
Viewers after more straightforward fun may prefer the old-fashioned sense of adventure and clearer archetypes of South Korea’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird (also released this month), but Miike isn’t interested in straightforward fun. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Sukiyaki Western Django is about a fusion of styles, the mix of Wild West frontier law with Eastern historical traditions and interest in the natural cycle. The DVD has subtitles to aid comprehension of the story but viewers should watch the film as it is to take in the contrast of colours, the dirty, mud-caked town and the change of seasons that ends with a bleak, wintry finale.
Sukiyaki is a beef dish that represents a foreign influence on Japanese culture as this meat was not common in the country before its introduction. Sukiyaki Western Django is Miike’s demonstration of the many cultural boundaries film has crossed and re-crossed and how this has blurred any clear, predetermined notions of genre and national identity. At times it’s a challenging, impenetrable film, and Tarantino’s Grindhouse may be responsible for Miike’s sometimes misjudged ‘coolness’; yet, there’s no denying that it pushes genre conventions as far as they will go in this unique blend of surrealist cartoon and adult violence.
View the trailer